In public communication during the COVID-19 pandemic, global guidelines are the main reference that needs attention. It should be understood that apart from general rules of communication, the implementer of public communication should not make too much promise about unknown matters so as not to cause loss of trust. If the public at large loses confidence in the messages conveyed by public officials, the public health situation will worsen because the directions given will not be followed.
On that basis, the communication principle for the COVID-19 pandemic is brief and concise: “under-promise and over-deliver”. The meaning is, do not promise anything high, but try to fulfill that promise so that we go beyond what has been promised. The goal is to build trust or trust. Once people lose their trust in what public officials say, it will be difficult to rebuild their trust.
“Trust is the essence of communication effectiveness. If we are not sure about the truth of a message, there is the risk that everything that is said in the message will be questioned.”
Trust is the essence of communication effectiveness. If we are not sure about the truth of a message, there is the risk that everything that is said in the message will be questioned. Especially when it comes to mass health problems that threaten society as a whole. One example of poor public communication occurred in the United States which resulted in unrest in the society of that country.
On May 15, 2020, President Donald Trump inaugurated “Operation Warp Speed”. The term warp speed refers to the fictional film Star Trek in which the travel between galaxies is possible at speeds exceeding the speed of light (300,000 km per second), which in the film is called warp speed. So, Operation Warp Speed can simply be translated as “Operation Fast as Lightning”, even though the meaning of warp speed is faster than lightning. From the beginning, many felt uncomfortable with the name of this operation which was too “marketing smack” and gave the impression of prioritizing speed above all else with such a bombastic name.
The funds provided are not small, US$18 billion, mainly to support research costs for pharmaceutical companies. As its operational leader was appointed a four-star general who previously served as Commander of the United States Army Logistics Command for most of his career in this field with decades of experience. The goal of the operation is to provide 300 million doses of a safe and effective vaccine by January 2021.
The first to successfully develop the anti-virus vaccine for COVID-19 was a pharmaceutical company that was founded in Germany in 2008 and owned by two Turkish husband and wife doctors, BioNTech, who collaborated with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in developing a vaccine against COVID-19. Pfizer consciously decided to refuse subsidies from Operation Warp Speed on the grounds of maintaining independence in vaccine development. BioNTech itself receives around US$445 million in subsidies from the German government, less than half of what US companies receive an average of US$1 billion in the framework of Operation Warp Speed.
United States government officials towards the end of 2020 expressed their belief that by the end of December 2020 they would be able to provide vaccinations to 20 million citizens. In fact, at the end of 2020, only around 3 million people who had received the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccinations had already obtained distribution permits. Logistical, social problems, as well as the fact that these two vaccines are new and require special storage, are some of the obstacles that cause the delay in vaccination despite the support of huge funds and sophisticated organizations, as well as a lack of coordination between the Federal government and the states.
We can learn from the stagnating experience of vaccination in the United States in Indonesia, which has just started the implementation of mass vaccination on January 13, 2021, targeting 181.5 million Indonesians aged 18-59 years. The announcement that the vaccination will be carried out on January 13, 2021, was made at the beginning of the year, while at that time there was no permit from the BPOM. Two days before the deadline, BPOM issued an announcement regarding the issuance of an emergency permit for the use of the Sinovac vaccine, officially named CoronaVac. Such an approach may give the impression that BPOM is “under pressure” to issue permits before the announced deadline.
BPOM also announced that based on the third stage of clinical trials conducted on 1,620 people in Bandung, the efficacy level (vaccine effectiveness) was obtained 65.3%, meaning that for every thousand people vaccinated, 653 received immunity, while 347 people were still susceptible to contracting the COVID-19 virus.
Sinovac itself has not announced an overall analysis of the results of Phase III clinical trials that have been carried out in Indonesia, Brazil, and Turkey. It is different from the other two pharmaceutical companies which have started vaccination first. An efficacy rate of approximately 95% was announced by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna after completing the analysis of the phase III clinical trial. The level of efficacy that is quite different between the three countries that administer the test for CoronaVac, respectively Brazil (78%), Turkey (91.25%), and Indonesia (65.3%), of course, must be explained by Sinovac thoroughly to eliminate doubts. Moreover, based on the latest news, the efficacy of Sinovac in Brazil is only slightly over 50%.
“Vaccine communication strategies need to reach multiple audiences with essentially the same message but different explanations.”
Quoting the article of my friend and former colleague, Anang Rizkani Noor entitled “Vaccine Communication” in the 31 December 2020 edition of Kompas: “In public communication, the audience is not only an object, but it is also dynamic and has hope. The combination of a complete mapping of issues, a touching approach, and a dialogical empathic leadership can promote the socialization of effective vaccines.” I emphasize the importance of society not being seen as a mere object and the need for mapping issues. Vaccine communication strategies must reach multiple audiences with essentially the same message but with different explanations.
First, it is the general public who does not have access to complete information. In this case, the example given by the president and state officials is expected to provide peace and encourage them to follow the example of state leaders. Openness and transparency along with factual explanations may provide a higher level of trust to those who have access to a broad range of information, including health professionals who are still unsure about vaccination. Whether this is true can be found through research.
A good communication strategy will be based on facts in the field obtained through reliable research. It may take a little longer, but the result is more effective communication.
Chairman & Chief Consultant, Kiroyan Partners
This article has been published in PR Indonesia magazine 70th Edition, issued on January 2021, page 52-53.
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