COMBATTING COVID: Taking a Behaviour Change Communications approach to vaccine campaigns

As countries worldwide seek to encourage their populace to get vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus, damaging division trends have emerged, many even in national communication campaigns. Unfortunately, this has similarly spilled over into social spaces and created an “us” vs “them” narrative, which pushes “negative” peer pressure as the solution.

It is commonplace on Twitter and Instagram, for example, to see persons labelling others who have yet to be vaccinated as “dunce,” “illiterate,” and the list goes on. Of course, the sole basis for these labels has been either a hesitancy or refusal to take the vaccines. But as with just about every other democratic initiative that requires a behaviour change, we have to begin by assessing current knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours and how these are formed, maintained, or influenced.

While understandable that these are unprecedented times and those who have been vaccinated are dying to return to some semblance of normalcy, what labellers may not be aware of is that negative labelling does way more harm than good and actually does the opposite of what they intend to achieve.

In my extensive behaviour change communications (BCC) experience, working with very many International and Development organisations on BCC campaigns around positive parenting, healthy lifestyle adoption, sustainable farming practices, youth empowerment and more, calling people “dunce” “fool,” “illiterate” and any other negative variation has NEVER resulted in positive behaviour change. If anything, it encourages staunch resistance, and yet, these adjectives constantly float beside the term anti vaxxers.

A critical starting point for those who have gotten vaccinated and wish to encourage others to do so is to firstly understand the importance of taking a behaviour communication-centric approach to prompt their colleagues and loved ones towards the desired behaviour change. The following guidelines are also helpful for National Communications campaigns/ Behaviour change efforts:

1. Start from a point that not everyone’s hesitancy is linked to their educational level: In many of my active spaces, there have been educated persons who are vaccine-hesitant for various reasons- health exemptions, side effects, and limited public facing contact to name a few. What this means is that constantly using terms such as dunce and illiterate does little to nothing to convince such persons who in all other personal and professional spaces, are celebrated academically and otherwise. Essentially, suddenly downplaying the legitimate intelligence of someone as automatically unintelligent certainly will not convince them to side with your rational or side of the conversation.

2. Recognize that information does not change behaviour: an often misplaced belief in many government campaigns has been that all persons lack knowledge, and thus, once the information is presented, there will be an automatic behaviour change. We have seen constantly that this simply isn’t true. Just look at countless HIV/AIDS awareness initiatives where people know that condom use is recommended and yet HIV/AIDS continue to be an issue among people who are knowledgeable and even have access to condoms. Also, look to countless cases where “smoking kills” is common knowledge and yet there continue to be chain smokers.

This means that for those who require information to convince them, this is fine, but for those who need a different approach, information overload achieves nothing. Our efforts, therefore, have to involve a mix of not just campaigns that share information but other interactive elements that are aligned with the diverse BCC needs of our populations.

3.Understand the different layers of Behaviour Change to get effective uptake: In behaviour change theory, it is integral to identify where people are on the behaviour change spectrum. In any society, there are likely to be at least 3 basic categories: 1 early responders who do not need much convincing and are ready to play their part for “the greater good”; 2. Mid-level responders who are open to accepting the desired behaviour change but need a bit more attention. This attention can be in the form of more information, positive reinforcement, or community testimonials. Thirdly, there are late responders who may not see the value of the desired behaviour change and require more hands-on approaches to encourage them towards
mindset shifts that are deeply embedded based on former knowledge, attitudes and beliefs.

These three categories are further compounded by unique intersecting realities that are affecting how behaviour change is arrived at generally. A single mother in a rural area is likely to respond to general Communications efforts very differently from a single mother in urban areas and a single mother with a disability based anywhere in the country. Though collectively
women, collectively single parents, their decisions are also being influenced by their unique intersecting realities.

This third point is particularly crucial for national behaviour shift communications campaigns as different strategies have to be designed to meet the different stakeholders at all levels of the behaviour change spectrum. Chances are early responders have already been vaccinated as they need little to no convincing. They should provide a good resource for testimonials and help to allay the fears of others who are mid and late responders on the behaviour change scale.

Notably, a real opportunity exists for mid-spectrum citizens who may be 50/50; 60/40, or even 70/30 in their decision-making process. For this group, it is essential for national leaders and their behaviour change practitioners to reach this group via research, and more active engagement approaches. It is necessary to understand how these mid responders can be
mobilised towards the desired end goal and what the current barriers are.

This then takes us on to the late responders, who will no doubt require a more deep-rooted massaging, if you may. It is this group that may have hesitancy not just around a national vaccination programme but a general distrust of national policies, health systems, governmental constituents, and more. Again, it is important to understand that this mix of doubts has been
learned and has likely been developed over years of socialisation, experiences, interactions, and more doubts that in no behaviour change space will be erased overnight. For this group, a more consistent approach is required including leveraging the power of the community. Are there others in their own community or demographics who share their views? Are there early and mid-level responders who could become positive influencers? These and other approaches need to be explored.

Like many successful development communications campaigns, audience segmentation is critical, and a one-size approach does not fit all. This is particularly important when a behaviour change component is included. In the same way, a national visibility blitz may not be effective for a rural community with little access to television and radio ads, or a print or social media ad will not be effective for those without access to these platforms. The same applies to national pro-vaccination efforts. Approaches will need to be tailored to the needs of citizens who cannot be targeted as a singular mass when their behaviour change commitments are at such very different levels.

Let’s, therefore, start by easing off the negative labels, focus more on what responder category citizens are in and the best approaches to reach them where they are. By adopting a behaviour change communication approach, negative labelling becomes unnecessary, and everyone can indeed win.

Shanoy Coombs is a Development and Intercultural Communications Practitioner and CEO for Infinity Integrated Communications, a Development Communications agency. She is also a 2019 Chevening Scholar.

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  1. Kudos
    September 5, 2021

    In upcoming campaigns, hearing directly from COVID survivors who regret not taking the vaccine could possibly motivate those who are still on the fence.

    • If we knew better
      September 7, 2021

      I have friends who have had COVID and still refuse to take the vaccine. I am definitely considering their testimonies as well.

  2. Roger Burnett
    September 5, 2021

    For those of us who are hesitant, it will take more than subtle physiological approaches to convince us that, in the long-term, the recently developed vaccines are better than a healthy body’s own immune system.

    I stress the words “long-term” and “healthy”. We do not know the long-term effects of the vaccines and in recent years our lifestyles have become increasingly unhealthy.

    While I have a great respect for the medical profession and scientific innovation, the knee-jerk vaccine promotions bare scrutiny. Recent news from Brazil, as reported by reputable international news agencies, being a case in point.

    “Brazil’s federal health regulator Anvisa on Saturday suspended the use of over 12 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd that were produced in an unauthorized plant…”

  3. Lorri James
    September 4, 2021

    Excellent advice! Hope the various stakeholders take it on board.

  4. Mr. Nicholas
    September 4, 2021

    If only if only this same model of behavioral change, would be focused towards the people who manage our affairs (the govts of the world). All these tools of science come out at the defense and disposal of govts, corporations and international organizations…if only we had these very tools to placate for change in the behavior of those who use their power to impose their will on others, seeking everything except that which will be to the benefit of their nation and humanity by extension.

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