Responding to rumours and crises

Preparatory work

Key point

Expect crises! They will happen. Be prepared.

When planning your communication to effectively deal with rumours and crises, consider the following three questions:

  • Who are your "allies" in dealing with a crisis in public confidence in vaccine safety?
  • What are the main elements of your communication plan to deal with rumours and crises effectively?
  • Why could your crisis communication plan fail? 

Particularly knowing the persons available to support you during a crisis is important. Think of who is best positioned to support you in developing and implementing your crisis communication plan. Professionals working in your post-marketing surveillance system may be well positioned to resolve a crisis swiftly by providing facts and information and supporting the communication. Also think about possible alliances outside your usual contacts who could add their expertise or support; for example, an organization that might fund aspects of your communication strategy such as printing leaflets, or a scientific journalist who might write an evidence-based article counteracting unfounded information arising from a rumour.

Before you begin work on your crisis communication plan, make sure that you have clear information and understanding of the crisis or rumour.

Developing a crisis communication plan

Communication in the context of a vaccine-related crisis follows the same steps as any other planning process, but because of the urgency of the situation, compressed time scales apply and you must be able to implement the plan quickly. Inclusive planning and action are critical – all stakeholders should be involved as soon as possible. Remember that communication is not an isolated exercise, but part of a broader action plan for handling the crisis.

Key point

Do not hesitate in taking essential actions if some stakeholders cannot be contacted immediately or do not respond quickly.

At the end of this module you will have the opportunity to look at Case Study C. The case study will illustrate how the death of a girl less than an hour after receiving HPV vaccine at school was handled and a crisis in public confidence in the vaccine in the UK was averted.

There are four basic elements of a communication plan.

Decide on your overarching objectives

What are the overarching objectives of your communication strategy? It may be, for example:

  • Within 1 year, to reverse the 10% drop in immunization coverage caused by adverse rumours about the vaccine,
  • To demonstrate increased public confidence in the vaccine and the immunization programme within 6 months, through surveys of knowledge, attitudes and beliefs.

Define your target audiences

  • The people most affected by the rumour or crisis,
  • The most influential people to communicate your vaccine safety messages to,
  • Internal to the immunization programme or the organizations that govern its operation: e.g. health workers, government ministers, national or international vaccine safety committees,
  • External to the immunization programme: e.g. patients/clients, the public, community organizations, pressure groups or the media.

Choose your key messages

  • What do you want the audience to hear and retain?

Select the channels of communication

  • Choose methods that will reach the largest possible number in your target audience and have the highest impact – based on the funding and other resources you have available,
  • Be creative about the "how" – effective communication channels may be neglected by opting for the obvious routes,
  • Do not underestimate "people power", for example, by using social media to counteract misleading rumours.


"Patients die after being given measles vaccine in Bukkala." Imagine that a crisis was triggered by a report in a mainstream newspaper. A paper has alleged that several children died due to a measles vaccine in a local immunization clinic. You have been asked to formulate a statement on the situation.

Which of the following suggested actions is/are correct (several statements possible)?

A. Provide a simple explanation of the situation.
B. State if there is no evidence that the death was caused by the vaccine itself.
C. Inform if there is an investigation ongoing.
D. Provide information on the safety profile of the vaccine.
E. Provide information on the risk posed by the disease that the vaccine prevents.
F. If you do not have sufficient information to respond to a journalist’s request available, answer with "No comment".


Statements A, B, C, D, and E are correct.

Your key message should be a simple explanation of the situation: If there is no evidence that the death was caused by the vaccine itself, state this. If there is an investigation ongoing, say this.

As with any new vaccine, health authorities closely monitor adverse events following the vaccination, so that any safety issues are quickly identified and followed up. State how many people have been vaccinated with this vaccine, how many serious adverse events have been reported, and how many of those have proven to be related to the vaccine itself, to put this particular event into perspective. For example, state how many people die or are seriously ill each year as a result of influenza.

If you do not have information to respond to a journalist's request, offer to share the information with the journalists later, or refer them to the specialist who has this information available. After the interview, provide the offered information to the journalist in a timely manner.