Founder and Chief Executive Officer of MWWPR, one of the largest independent public relations firms in the nation.
In order to achieve herd immunity against Covid-19, public health experts suggest that 75 to 90% of the population must be vaccinated. Unfortunately, according to a December survey by Pew Research, only 60% of Americans said they would “definitely or probably” get a Covid-19 vaccine. Of the nearly 40% of Americans who said they “definitely or probably would not” get vaccinated, 18% said more information might change their minds, while 21% were “pretty certain” more information would not influence their decision.
This is unsettling news for a country in the thick of a nearly year-long battle with the novel coronavirus that has so far killed over a quarter of a million Americans – with this death count forecasted to surpass well over half a million Americans by April.
Clearly, governments around the world face the enormous life-and-death issue of convincing enough people to get vaccinated. But governments are unlikely to achieve this herculean feat on their own. Not only do brands and corporations have an obligation to step in and help protect their customers and employees; they also have the proven communications strategies that can amplify scientific facts about the Covid-19 vaccines, and reach the populations that the government has failed to.
Meeting People Where They Are
In order to get people to trust a brand, product or initiative, you have to first understand where their distrust is coming from. Often, their distrust is not unfounded. When it comes to vaccine hesitancy in minority communities, for example, the legacy of the Tuskegee Study, which denied life-saving treatment to patients on the basis of race, is enough justification for distrust in the medical research enterprise – especially as these communities continue to experience disparate health outcomes.
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Business leaders and executives might think the reasons for wanting to be vaccinated – health, the ability to return to work and resume social interaction – are obvious, but this is because leaders can often become trapped in a bubble of their own perspective. Efficient communicators understand that not everyone shares the same incentives. Some people may want to be able to get on an airplane again; some people might want their kids to go back to school; some might simply want to be able to grocery shop without having to wear a mask.
Sending The Right Grassroots Message
It’s vital to understand how and where people in different geographic and socioeconomic communities are getting their news. What are their primary media outlets and what misinformation are they exposed to? As highlighted in a recent excerpt of the New York Times’ “On Tech” newsletter, false information tends to be more engaging than facts, and many internet platforms depend on keeping engagement high. This is why we need to recruit science and health professionals to mitigate misinformation with facts.
Just as there isn’t one collective incentive, there isn’t one spokesperson or influencer who can communicate to all people in all communities. In order to deliver a message communities trust, we need to speak to each community through voices and outlets that speak to its unique perspective. This means giving people reasons to believe through primarily grassroots versus grasstops messaging across the entire omnichannel marketing spectrum.
Harnessing The Power Of Micro-Influencers
When it comes to critical social issues, the importance of the social CEO cannot be overstated. But organizations also need to harness the power of micro-influencers to deliver more targeted, heartfelt messages to smaller, more engaged audiences. There’s strong evidence that micro-influencers with audiences of a few thousand people are more effective messengers than even celebrity spokespeople with global followings.
For example, the state of New Jersey recently launched a PSA public health messaging campaign with local micro-influencers on social media. The goal was to communicate the importance of life-saving Covid-19 practices such as hand-washing and social distancing through organic, authentic, apolitical and family-friendly messages from relatable micro-influencers who are much less likely to be perceived as “hired guns” than Hollywood celebrities.
In a few short months, the pilot program’s 444 local micro-influencers generated more than 35 million views on more than 2,000 posts over multiple social media platforms. Participating influencers described the response as so “overwhelmingly positive” that the state plans to use the same framework for vaccine distribution campaigns in 2021.
Building A Legacy Of Trust Through Purpose
We have entered the golden age of corporate purpose and responsibility. Brands have an obligation to use their extraordinary voice among their customers, employees and stakeholders to benefit matters of the greater good, which we’ve seen accelerated this year through issues such as Covid-19, racial injustice, income inequality and political polarization.
Most companies are still figuring out how to implement vaccination programs in practice and as part of their core values, but I believe this will be the seminal issue of 2021 and a big part of corporate marketing in the near future. The key is to meaningfully communicate these issues from the ground-up instead of grasstops campaigns that simply make people feel good.
If companies can establish an effective framework for vaccine distribution, they’ll create a foundation for mitigating other critical social issues, such as economic disparities and climate change. All organizations must understand that people will never forget this time in human history. People will remember what companies did to help or hurt their communities. In this vein, communication that positively influences public health is not only a life-and-death matter for consumers; it’s also a life-and-death matter for brands.
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Author: Michael Kempner, Forbes Councils Member