5 Reasons the Romanian anti-Covid campaign failed – A quick communications audit

As someone who’s been plagued by chronic respiratory ailments, and an emigrée with very strong ties to the motherland, I have kept a close eye on the Romanian anti-Covid vaccination campaign. My feelings about it went from the initial awe at the exceptional logistical organization with its fast and effective roll-out, to downright dismay when, at the beginning of the summer, the public’s interest had dwindled to a trickle and the most outlandish conspiracy theories were taking hold, controlling the market of ideas.

Having followed the campaign and the ensuing crisis with great interest across a variety of media channels and on the ground in Romania itself, I would like to venture a few observations as to why it might have failed the way it did (currently Romania has the highest rate of Covid-related deaths per 1M people in the EU). Here are some of the possible causes, in my view:

  1. Lack of proper research, lack of sufficient data to understand the real levels of acceptance of the vaccines in the general population and across various socio-demographic groups, the points and pockets of resistance, objections that needed to be addressed, the target audience’s media consumption patterns, etc.
    • According to people familiar with the process, the inputs of social psychologists, behavioral economists, change management experts, and marcomms professionals were not sought out. A decision without data and research is like trying to win an obstacle race in total darkness and throwing away the flashlight. The authorities most likely failed to understand and to counter the public’s fundamental distrust of the state and its institutions (a distrust inherited from communism); they underestimated the general misgivings about and fear of the medical establishment (especially after the Colectiv disaster) and did not educate the public enough about science and scientific advances. Getting vaccinated or not is obviously a personal choice that cannot be forced upon people, and there are contraindications, but there are also nudges that can be used for the common good when the benefits for both individual and society are higher than the costs to the individual. Doubts and worries needed to be addressed professionally, not glossed over in exchange for a faster pace of vaccination.
  2. Failure to co-opt and involve all possible stakeholders (GPs/family doctors/attending physicians, private media outlets, village mayors, the Church), build political consensus and establish an atmosphere of trust and collaboration
    • The initial response was an emergency response: speedy, efficient, top-down, dominating. It had to be. But for a campaign of this magnitude to work in the long run – when it’s all about staying the course, legitimizing, reinforcing, or tweaking decisions – the organizers would be well-advised to consult with, include, and incentivize a wide variety of stakeholders. This way, opinion leaders of diverse backgrounds will have a stake in the campaign’s success, pick up the message and relay it further. Communication channels with various interest groups need to be kept open – in both directions. It’s not clear whether this was the case, but considering the general griping, it’s likely it wasn’t.
    • In a country where the community of believers is huge, a country of mass pilgrimages, where churches are still full on Sundays, the failure to anticipate resistance from the Church and to co-opt the clergy with a message they were comfortable relaying had wide-ranging negative consequences. This did not have to be a medical message (as many priests were still skeptical of the vaccine and wary of urging people to get vaccinated), but it could have been a unified pro-health, pro-social responsibility message, along the lines of “life and health are God-given gifts, do everything you can to protect them. Protecting yourself and others is your altruistic Christian duty. Trust science, doctors, and medical experts.” A message along these lines was eventually issued by the Patriarch’s office, but “unaligned” priests peddling conspiracy theories received more media exposure.
  3. Failure to develop a clear, compelling, culturally aware, and consistent message centered around benefits, to be delivered rhythmically and across all channels, assumed by all major political parties and opinion leaders, in unison.
    • A cacophony of conflicting messages from different sides confused an already skeptical public even more. Without a clear official message and a campaign slogan being repeated online and offline throughout the media landscape, the narrative could not be controlled and a void ensued. Romania also has fairly high rates of functional illiteracy. This played into the hands of conspiracy theorists, creating the fertile ground in which alternative narratives could blossom and thrive. The official campaign failed to identify and address objections, fears, and contentious issues upfront, decisively, and transparently. People were getting their vaccination appointments fast, but there was no comprehensive education of the public before getting the shot (by comparison, in German vaccination centers, all patients had to watch a 10-minute video explaining in detail how the vaccine was developed, how it worked, what side-effects to expect and what to do about them, how the immune response is generated, etc. – BEFORE getting the vaccine – and they were informed that they can still talk it over with the administering doctor in the privacy of each individual booth, etc.) Plodding on without satisfactory individual conversations can generate emotional reactance. The Romanian public is gregarious and emotional, and emotions are notoriously fickle. The campaign failed to create affinity with its goals and to establish an enduring environment of mutual trust, solidarity, and collective effort. Once the quarantine/hygiene measures began to seriously impact livelihoods, social interactions, and individual freedoms, the momentum was lost and people began looking for individual ways out.
  4. Failure to deliver the campaign message across all possible channels and to engage communities, including on social media where, according to a recent study, most Romanians went for information on these issues (possibly because they mistrusted the version delivered to them by the mainstream and state-owned media).
    • The government’s anti-Covid campaign did not sufficiently target the social platforms, it ended up talking almost exclusively to a friendly audience (thus neglecting the very people it should have reached) and its message was often self-serving (self-congratulatory as to how well the campaign was advancing and prematurely celebrating success) rather than community-serving. To my knowledge, the vaccination campaign did not attempt to engage online communities and dispel myths, neither before they took hold, nor after. Information was available on the online vaccination platform and in some parts of the press, but IMHO a more proactive approach would have been needed. Distrust of the press is also a factor in certain communities. The presence offline was also unsatisfactory, with General Practitioners being brought into the picture only at the beginning of summer 2021 when very few people were still willing to get the vaccine. And this despite studies to the effect that, of the entire medical profession, it is the GPs that rank highest in the public’s trust. Reaction to the burgeoning commerce in conspiracy theories was sluggish, leaving the authorities on the defensive. Many Romanians still live in an informational bubble, without access to clear scientific data and unaware of global trends or best practices from abroad.
  5. Political interference and inconsistent measures and rules.
    • The political actors’ behavior has been opportunistic and inconsistent: the hard, military-style lockdowns at the beginning of the pandemic were followed by a rather discretionary easing of the measures in the run-up to the general elections; strict social distancing all the way through spring was followed by total laxity over the summer; a dire medical crisis ensued amid political skirmishes; as a result, no sensible measures have been implemented recently despite the desperate situation (which is now considerably worse than at the beginning of the pandemic). All this flip-flopping, accompanied by contradictory communication, weak justifications, and erratic implementation, gave an impression of arbitrariness and amateurishness – i.e., that everything is a farce to gain political capital, stay in power, and maintain popularity. For the sake of ratings, certain media outlets gave eccentric agitators and people with no medical qualifications ample space to convey their “alternative” theories. And for short-term gains, the parties in Parliament (including within the governing coalition) began sabotaging each other’s messages and efforts, befuddling onlookers further. Measures that were perceived as unreasonable (mask mandates for people walking in the street, but large parties and festivals allowed; no masks in hotels and restaurants but mask mandates for children at school, etc.) also cemented the impression that the public’s true interests are not being served. In my view, the authorities also failed to manage expectations properly: in July 2021 many Romanians were convinced the pandemic was over! To this day, the Green Covid Pass remains unenforced in Romania.

Unfortunately, in Romania’s case, the decision-makers seem to have forgotten that the very absence of communication itself communicates a message… and that short-term, short-sighted thinking can lead to tragedy. An “us vs. them” type of communication is adversarial and antagonistic; it exacerbates conflict and emotional reactance; it clouds people’s judgment. Depersonalizing the issues leads to a more rational and effective approach.

Real problem-solving requires maturity, trust, common objectives and a commitment to work together, defining the problem in objective terms that are mutually acceptable, and respecting the validity of the other’s perspective. None of this can be reached without a clear and accurate exchange of information. The parties involved need to believe that they are better off cooperating than competing. Inclusive, collaborative, integrative communication is essential not only for getting an agreement but also for sustaining it over the medium and long term.