Expert comment

Vaccines, trust and public health: Why employers have a role to play

Public health agencies and governments globally are leading the drive to communicate the importance of Covid-19 vaccination campaigns to defeat the pandemic.

At the same time, they are seeking to dispel unfounded rumours circulating about the risks of vaccination and to reassure people about its safety.

Companies too, have an important role to play in the vaccine confidence effort. In the latest trust survey published by the Edelman public relations firm,  ‘my employer’ and even ‘communications from my employer’ are seen as more trusted than the news media.

It is a big responsibility for employers to design and implement the right kind of communications around such a critical and sensitive issue. Here are some recommendations for key things to pay attention to:

1. Help people make ‘the Trust Leap’

The vaccines are new and therefore require people to take what I call a ‘trust leap’ – to take a risk by trying something new or behaving differently. To make such a leap, we need to have a confident relationship with the unknown - the very essence of trust. Understanding this, and your role in helping people get the information they need to make that leap, is a good starting point.

2. Think about what information different groups need

As in any communication campaign, it is useful to distinguish between different groups of people and the information they are looking for. Don’t make the mistake of treating all who are hesitant about the vaccine as one group. There is likely to be a wide range of very different reasons for their hesitation or reluctance. Some employees may be in a position where they in fact want the vaccine, but the barrier is logistical – when and how can they get it? There may be a - most likely - small group of employees with very strong opinions against the vaccine, and it will be almost impossible to change their views - research shows that facts about the science and safety will not change their minds, and may even harden their views. A third group may have mixed views and doubts, along with genuine questions. They need to know their employers are listening to them. This group is crucial to focus on.

3. Look for 'local trust'

Local trust exists between members of small, local communities and rests in specific individuals, someone we’re familiar with. It is the way we used to learn about things.  And with the huge trust deficit we have in society today, it is where we are heading again. So it is essential to provide employees with the right public health information, but to allow them to get it from their peers and other people they trust. It is important to ensure you provide access to in-house experts, or a path for referral to get the right advice, and communicate these sources of information via the right local channels and communities, for example local team meetings and existing employee networks.

4. Find your ‘trust influencers'

It helps to know who your ‘trust influencers’ are. These are people whose views, often informally, carry great weight with their peers and who can disproportionately influence the way things are seen. They can sometimes be those you might think are the least likely to change their behaviour or do something new. In a climate of uncertainty, and where there is a lack of trust more widely, we turn to people we know, and who we feel safe with. 

5. Take care with top-down messages

In any crisis, it is important that communications should follow some basic principles

  • They should show empathy for the real difficulties and pressures people are facing, the impact of the situation on them and those around them, and the tone of the communication should reflect this.
  • Any information should be accurate and timely, with clarity about what is known, the sources of the information, and clarity too about what is not known or not yet known.
  • It should be made clear what action is being taken or recommended in response to the situation.
  • And it is critical, in seeking to build trust and encourage participation in a vaccination programme, not to make it a mandatory, top-down order.

6. Lead by example

Lastly, leaders can set an example, by publicly supporting vaccines and getting vaccinated themselves. This shows they themselves are not afraid and helps foster trust.