COVID Vaccine Communication Action Plan


Over many years of knowing him, Pat Ford has always delivered thoughtful insights and comments during discussions with clients, nonprofit boards and students. That’s exactly what happened when I asked Pat for his top-of-mind suggestions on how the PR community might help encourage COVID vaccinations.

Here’s Pat’s suggested action plan that should be adopted by the powers-that-be at the local, state and federal level:

First, start where our programs always start (or should start): with sophisticated analysis of research data. Collect and re-analyze the best comprehensive, values-based, predictive data on the most productive actions and messages to reach the various stakeholders we’ll need to get to herd immunity. If that data have not yet been developed, then raise funding and a team of world-class data analysis experts to get a clearer road map for all of us.

We need a call to action within our own professional community to launch a highly focused and coordinated campaign that aims at one goal: full herd immunity through maximum vaccinations for those medically able to take them. Action steps:

    • Continually emphasize (with data) why urgent action is needed.
    • Call on the leaders in our profession to model best behavior and commit to using their influence within their companies, communities and families to encourage their stakeholders to take the vaccine if medically able. Or maybe employ an even more simple and compelling call to action: just consult your own doctor and go to your local clinic if you don’t have a personal physician.
    • Suspend political agendas – that won’t be easy with the extent of political polarization, but perhaps we can call a moratorium on the politically charged attacks on all sides. If someone you disagree with and who has been an ardent vaccine critic now sees more reason to get the vaccine and encourages others to do so, then support that message. I just saw a tweet today from a political figure with whom I could not more completely disagree on policy and on her approach to politics.  But she told her followers she had spoken with her doctor and on his advice got her family vaccinated. She also cited former President Trump’s decision to get the vaccine, and said if it is safe for him it must be safe for her. My immediate gut reaction was to think, “Where the heck have you been for months!” But I think if we are going to turn this around we need to resist that temptation and instead count her tweet as a positive step toward our shared societal goal (regardless of my private political feelings about her).
    • Organize an industry-wide leadership group to marshal our resources in our companies, communities, educational institutions, and NGOs to rally support behind this one big thing.
    • Form a constructive “truth squad” program to:
      • Correct misinformation in media and social media in real time. Do it constructively, with evidence-based data.
      • Work with news organizations, social media influencers, church leaders, and advocates for various communities to re-frame the debate on vaccines.

There are obviously many issues that need action to bring about serious changes – we can already see that in relation to racial injustice, climate change, immigration and others  But in covid-19 we have a dire, clearly life-threatening crisis that cries out for nuanced rethinking of how to assess changing information and on how dependent we are on each other to get past this before new variants arise from this ever-mutating virus and threaten us all in new and scary ways.

One additional thought: In seeking to convince people to rethink this issue in ways that challenge some of their previously held positions, perhaps part of that re-framing could build on the ideas contained in Adam Grant’s recent bestseller, Think Again:The Power of Knowing What We Don’t Know. In it, he describes how, “With bold ideas and rigorous evidence, we can embrace the joy of being wrong,” rather than being fixated on defending previous positions in the face of new data.  So many of us spend our lives striving to think and learn, but Grant says we often miss the importance of  rethinking and unlearning some of our old convictions so we can be open to new positions in this rapidly changing world (and where are things changing any more rapidly than in the case of this pandemic?). I wonder if his ideas, or enlisting Grant himself, might point us toward some ways to break through the seemingly insurmountable barriers that seem to have formed around this issue.

One thing that has become abundantly clear is that there is no one message, or clever tagline, or ideal spokesperson for the masses.That’s why the best way we as PR/communications professionals can make a big impact is to drive support for the one goal – making everyone as safe as possible by developing herd immunity to the vaccine – while resisting any one-size-fits-all solutions.

Pat Ford is professional in residence at the University of Florida where he teaches public relations in the College of Journalism and Communication. Pat joined the Florida faculty after a long career at Burson-Marsteller, now BCW. His passion for the PR profession is recognized by organizations lucky to have him serve on their boards, including the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, the Institute for Public Relations, the Museum of Public Relations and the Diversity Action Alliance.

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