There are now enough COVID-19 vaccines, at least in the U.S., for all people to be eligible to get one, and yet a sizable number of people are still not vaccinated. The rapid spread of COVID-19 in 2020 revealed a lot not only about health and social systems in the U.S. but also about our information systems, and the rollout of vaccines has continued this thread.
Honestly, I hesitated to even write this article, for fear of contributing even more to the noise which can be more harmful than helpful. I’ve spent the past decade helping experts, many of which are in health, communicate about important topics. So while I can recognize that I’m not an epidemiologist, I am equipped to share some insights related to the emerging field of infodemiology. Even if the pandemic is waning, we are still in an infodemic with an overabundance of information making it hard for people to find necessary and reliable guidance.
I’m going to use a data storytelling framework to share some tips for responsibly informing people, and I’m going to use this very timely topic of COVID-19 vaccination to make some salient, timely points about responsible communication.
Table of Contents:
- Prioritizing critical populations
- Using authoritative sources
- Creating effective communication materials
Prioritizing Critical Audiences
Storytelling always begins with audiences. In fact, this is why storytelling matters: It’s a powerful way to connect to people. So powerful that people tend to remember and be motivated by the stories they hear, even if it means forgetting or ignoring other data points.
When it comes to COVID-19 vaccination, there are a number of potential audiences. At this point, a critical one is the people who have not gotten vaccinated yet. Now as we consider who these people might be exactly, it’s important to note the many factors that might keep someone from doing so. Rather than “blaming” or shaming these individuals, we can seek to understand them better.
This infographic describes how social determinants of health are impacting vaccination, the difference between people who are hard to reach and people who are hard to vaccinate, and the key people who can make a difference.
Using Authoritative Sources
Perhaps unlike others plaguing us in this infodemic, the infographic above was created as a result of thorough research. As I scoured the internet for relevant, useful information and data, I looked in particular for:
- Relatively-recent information produced by authoritative sources, such as governmental institutions, leading foundations, major publications, and academic journals
- Different forms of information, such as data from healthcare facilities and qualitative research, stories in news outlets, conceptual frameworks based on research, and academic papers
- Insights critical to communication goals, such as research about audiences and who influences them, definitions of important language and terms, data points that facilitate “aha” moments, and any findings about effective messages
Based on the information and insights, I created a very basic, initial outline of content that I then shared with a handful of health professionals to get additional input before proceeding with the design. This helped me make sure that I was not only using appropriate information, but that I was also framing it in a way that aligns with the public health field as a whole.
Creating Effective Communication Materials
One of the most interesting things I learned about during this research was a study that showed that anti-vaccination materials that looked more scientific were more likely to persuade audiences. While this validates previous research about the impact of data visualizations, it struck me because the study referenced misleading scientific illustrations, so it was more about visual communication in general.
All this to say: Visuals matter! I know few get excited as I do when reading about academic studies, and that in an infodemic what makes a difference is what spreads. Visual infographics are not only far more convenient and engaging than a lengthy publication, they are also incredibly easy to share.
There’s a lot of ways visuals can mislead, so the bare minimum is to avoid major mistakes and be sure to:
- Select appropriate data and present it accurately
- Use titles, labels, and calls to action to add meaning and clarity
- Offer plenty of content while minimizing clutter
While it’s important to stay true to the science and data, we can also know that facts aren’t usually enough to change someone’s mind, especially when it comes to highly-emotional topics like the health of ourselves and our families. This is why we start our storytelling process by seeking to understand audience needs and desires. But this is not simply the first step, it is a through line that helps us continue to make informed decisions about what will be most effective in our communications.
None of us are computers, so we need to use logic as well as emotion in our communications. For example, if people are afraid, we should address that. However, we might not want to use fear-based messaging to motivate action. Turns out, hopeful emotions are more effective at getting us to take action.
Just like it’s essential to vet the content, we can ask others to review our initial designs to help us refine our messaging and presentation. We cannot always predict how people will respond, so it’s best to deepen our understanding of people’s potential responses before we share materials more widely.
Just like it will take all of us to emerge from this pandemic with relatively minimal losses, it will take every professional and content creator to mitigate this infodemic. Use these tips not only for any vaccine education efforts you might engage in, but to ensure all of your informing is responsible.