Universal COVID-19 Vaccination - A PR Problem?

Sep 30, 2020 1:56:59 PM / by John Kouten, CEO

A myriad of questions continue to swirl about the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

  • Will a vaccine be safe? 
  • Will a vaccine be effective?
  • If I was infected already, do I need to take the vaccine? 
  • How many doses will be required? 
  • Can I take more than one kind of vaccine?
  • Will I need a COVID-19 vaccine annually? 

But the biggest questions remain 

  • If a COVID-19 vaccine is approved, will everyone take it? 

At present, the resounding answer to this question, unfortunately, is no. 

According to a Gallup poll released on August 7, 2020, 65% of Americans responded that they would receive the vaccine and 35% said they would not.  More troubling is that white Americans are significantly more likely than non-White Americans to say they would be vaccinated if a free FDA-approved version were available -- 67% vs. 59%, respectively.  Another poll by the Associated Press confirms these data -- reporting that 40% of blacks in the U.S. would not get a vaccine if it is available. This is alarming since, according to CDC statistics, black Americans account for one-quarter of COVID-19 deaths. 

In the end, the full-force of the global life science community seems to be pulling together to achieve a COVID-19 vaccine as quickly and safely as possible.  The likes of Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Merck are moving as quickly as possible to develop a variety of different COVID-19 vaccines. 

But, if big pharma delivers a vaccine, or a number of different COVID-19 vaccines, and a huge portion of society is too scared to take them, will the virus remain a major cause of death in the U.S, and other countries?  The bigger question is, how can we assure the public that these vaccines are safe and effective? 

Sounds like a PR problem. 

Global governments and the life science community, as well as other allied health and medical organizations must agree that this is a communication problem and agree on a common solution. 

  • What are the main concerns regarding a COVID-19 vaccine? 
  • How can we increase the number of people willing to receive a vaccine? 
1. Research 

First, we must research the reasons behind the vaccine fears.  Valid survey research data can help better understand why people are either comfortable or fearful.  Research can also uncover where individuals most often receive their COVID-19 news. These data can then inform our messages and channels.

2. Develop Core Messages

Based on survey research, we can identify core messages that will help persuade individuals of the merits of vaccination.  In the absence of a vaccine, the only path to immunity is infection – a path fraught with risks, including death.  And the benefits of immunity through a vaccine far outweigh the risks of COVID-19 infection. 

3. Channel Selection 

Communication work requires resources. And, since resources are not unlimited, we must prioritize the most effective media channels. We can prioritize channel selection based on data from our survey research.  These data may show that social media is more important than traditional media, or vice versa. 

4. Plan, Implement, Monitor, Pivot 

As with all PR programs, we begin with a strategic plan informed by research.  As we implement the plan using the prioritized messages via the prioritized channels, we can monitor results.  If we can determine that one channel is more effective in persuading key audiences over another, we can simply pivot resources.  Some channels may be more effective based on demographics. 

In the end, if we invest valuable resources to develop a variety of COVID-19 vaccines and huge segments of the population fear vaccination, victory over this pandemic will be delayed.  So, we must consider this a war of words, as well as a war against a virus. At JFK Communications we are ready to help the life science community persuade its target audiences through strategic communication.  If you need help with your “war of words” please reach out here.


Topics: crisis communications, issues management, COVID-19, Strategic Planning, covid communications

John Kouten, CEO

Written by John Kouten, CEO