As we came to the end of January, the tragic milestone of 100,000 COVID-19 deaths in the UK was reached and exceeded, while the country remains in its third national lockdown.
But there are reasons for cautious optimism, and at the centre of these is the national rollout of the vaccines.
In this year's first episode of PRWeek’s podcast, The PR Show, our panel explored how messaging for the vaccines should be handled, how it should be tailored to different communities, and whether brands and the media have any business joining this vital conversation.
Faeth Birch, the Finsbury Glover Hering UK, Middle East & Asia chief executive, said: “What we need is well-respected spokespeople, popular spokespeople, and people who represent different strata of society, as well as people who represent BAME communities, out making the case. It’s a huge challenge and we need to step up; our industry and the Government.”
Misinformation about vaccines is spreading, particularly in BME communities, so should messaging be tailored and adapted?
Pretty Green account director Sheeraz Gulsher said trust in the Government among these communities was already low, due to reports that frontline doctors from BME backgrounds were more likely to die from COVID-19, as well as the cancellation of Eid celebrations at the last moment.
He added: “I think misinformation, particularly in South Asian communities, is rife. Even in my own experience, I’ve seen aunties and uncles forward 'fake news' on WhatsApp. I think it’s incredibly important to tailor the message and I’ve seen great examples of that.”
Traditional media outlets, which come with engaged audiences of readers, viewers and listeners, also have a potentially powerful role in driving take-up of the vaccines, so how should they proceed?
Effie Kanyua, Hearst director of PR and comms, said media outlets do have a role, but the way they cover the vaccines is a decisive factor.
“Some of the biggest lessons learned last year for media brands… were that it is very easy to lose the trust of your audiences,” she said. “You need to identify the right tone in terms of communicating with your audience.”
Role of the government
The Government has failed to cover itself in glory with its messaging since the start of the outbreak, but its comms around the vaccines have been more successful.
Iain Anderson, Cicero/AMO executive chair, said it was time for the Government to capitalise on this and give people a new message.
“The message needs to pivot to one around getting our lives back, being able to spend time with our families again, being able to see our friends, being able to work together again,” he said. “The idea that the more of us get the vaccines, the more immunity there’s going to be in the population and therefore we can get back to the things we love.”
And what of the role of brands? Can they refresh the parts of the vaccine conversation that other messaging can’t reach?
Perhaps, if they can do so authentically – but 'news-jacking' is not advised, said James Gordon-Macintosh, co-founder and chief creative officer at Hope&Glory.
He added: “I would dearly love to see brands that play a central role in the cultures that we need to reach and engage, particularly those that are less likely to listen to the health professionals or to the Government. I think the temptation is absolutely there… Some of them have got it right and some of them have really shot themselves in the foot by 'news-jacking' some of the big national issues.”
05:40 The surprising content Hearst magazine readers turned to during the pandemic
08:30 The reason why some young PR professionals may leave the industry this year
15:20 Why conducting public affairs work by screen is more effective than you may have thought
20:30 The renewed sense of optimism for consumer agencies
22:40 Communications goes mainstream and it is here to stay
28:00 Challenging vaccine misinformation in your own family
35:40 The Government message on vaccines needs to pivot
38:00 How brands can seize the opportunity to join the vaccine conversation