You have many things to consider when planning to launch a COVID-19 public health campaign. First, you must understand and appreciate the unprecedented need for clear, accurate, and action-oriented information dissemination and engagement. With the amount of false information propagated by social media, it's imperative to be consistent with messaging.
You must identify what types of information people are looking for and acknowledge the diversity of the communities you want to reach. The goal is to incorporate best practices from successful campaigns and avoid messaging that fails to connect, communicate, and convince.
Generalized crises require customized advertising efforts for various communities and societies and also an evolving, multi-stage approach not recognized in prior research on health messaging.
Examples of a few successful COVID-19 public service announcements (PSAs) and campaigns are described so you can identify best practices to incorporate as you craft your own COVID-19 public health campaign.
Tip #1: Be Aware of People's Expectations
Individuals want to know if the vaccines are safe, how to access immunization services, and whether they are effective. In addition, people remain interested in what COVID-19 symptoms are and are looking for reliable, accurate information.
People want to hear from highly credible sources who convey messages simply, clearly, timely, and empathetically. Well-known individuals who have high credibility within specific population groups, especially people of color or the underserved, are needed to reach those currently reluctant about getting the vaccine.
Tip #2: Design Campaigns Based on Proven Health Communication Strategies
Knowing the public's preferences for receiving COVID-19 messaging asd paves the way for creating successful, meaningful campaigns. In addition, professional health communicators will put time and energy into planning, developing, and evaluating public health campaigns, so they achieve the desired outcome from their messaging.
Depending on the scope, successful campaigns will include attention to individual behavior and physiology; family, community, and social networks; living and working circumstances; and state, national, and global conditions. In addition, the campaign's messaging and materials must consider the psychographics of a given audience — not just who they are, but what they value and why.
Behavioral experts at MIT suggest three strategies for an effective COVID-19 health campaign:
- Communicate the benefit to the community.
- Make the ask unambiguous, categorical, and concise.
- Generate the impression that other people expect compliance.
Storytelling is another effective communication tool to educate, build support, and humanize what it is like to have COVID-19. On November 18, 2021, Resolve to Save Lives launched “Voices of Long COVID,” a campaign that features testimonials from young adults ages 18 to 29 who are struggling with persistent health problems from COVID-19. The campaign follows Resolve to Save Lives' national survey that found that nearly a third of American adults are unaware of long COVID and that "long-hauler" stories can motivate 40 percent of unvaccinated people to consider getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
Tip #3: Know What Not to Do
It's important to know what works in PSAs and campaigns, but you also need to know what does not resonate with the public. Experts say public health advertising often falls short because it incites people's worst fears rather than providing clear steps people can take to save lives. In addition, public health ads can backfire if they provoke "defensive responses." Ads that show diseased lungs to discourage smokers are one such example.
Examples of Successful Public Health Campaigns
Here are some examples of successful public health campaigns.
It's Up to You
One of the most extensive public education efforts in U.S. history launched on February 25, 2021. "It's Up to You" is a national, $52 million public health campaign to educate the public about the importance of getting vaccinated. The campaign encourages people that the best way to get back to the "moments they've missed" is to get vaccinated. One component of the program is to inform and engage people of color with whom the disease has disproportionately impacted. The Ad Council and the COVID Collaborative, with the involvement of the CDC, lead this effort. In addition, over 300 major brands, media companies, community-based faith leaders, medical experts, and other trusted messengers are participating.
The central message underscores the role of choice in getting vaccinated, rather than trying to impose a mandatory or forced outcome that might not settle well with vaccine-hesitant communities. The strategy is to provide accurate and timely information about vaccine side effects, efficacy, and clinical trials and boost public confidence and trust in getting immunized.
Family Smarts Keeps COVID Away
The Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs teamed up with the Department of Health in the Philippines to help Filipinos prevent the spread of COVID-19 by creating a Facebook resource called Family Smarts Keeps COVID Away. The site shares critical information on prevention behaviors such as handwashing, social distancing, and mask-wearing in fun, friendly, digestible bits of information. The Facebook page has reached 160 million people since it started in late March 2020. In the first month alone, the page garnered 100,000 followers, with more than 270,000 new followers six months later. In April, a single post reached 3.4 million people.
In recognition of the success of this campaign, the creators received The Stevie Award, which recognizes the achievements of women executives, entrepreneurs, and the organizations they run in the Philippines. The award won in the category of "Best Use of Social Media – COVID-19-related Information."
We're Never Lost if We Can Find Each Other
Ranked No. 17 on AdAge's best of 2020 COVID-19 public health ads is Facebook's poignant pandemic ad called, We're never lost if we can find each other, produced by Droga5.
The ad, released in March 2020, just one month after COVID-19 began ravaging the world as we knew it, reminded us that there is joy to be found in connecting even in these trying times. The 90-second film emphasizes the importance of connecting with friends, family, and the community during the COVID-19 crisis. British poet Kate Tempest narrates the film.
Hopefully, these strategies and examples will help you develop COVID-19 campaigns that connect, communicate, and convince — and save lives.
Research and materials for this article were compiled, written, and distributed on behalf of the National Public Health Information Coalition. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the various authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Public Health Information Coalition or its members.