What we can learn from the vaccine wars

However baffling, resistance to vaccines continues. Chris Graves of Ogilvy Public Relations reveals the science behind four key mistakes communicators make when trying to change the tide on an issue such as this one.

Christopher Graves, global chairman, Ogilvy Public Relations
Christopher Graves, global chairman, Ogilvy Public Relations

War has broken out in the United States. The Vaccine Wars. As communicators fail to convince as much as a third of the population to change behavior, a disease (measles) once declared eradicated 15 years ago has reemerged. Parents are taking sides, claiming the "anti-vaxxers" are dangerous idiots, while those opting out of vaccines for their kids claim government cover-ups and right to freedom of choice. From government health agency experts to celebrity former Playboy bunnies, all have taken sides and are sniping. What happened? Why can’t effective PR fix this? What can every communicator learn from this?

Seventeen years ago, a doctor in the UK published a study of just 12 children that purported to show a link between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. The work was completely discredited as fraudulent and the doctor was stripped of his license to practice. Yet today, one out of five young people in the US still believe the vaccine is linked to autism, and 43 percent of parents want the choice to not give their kids this vaccine, which no studies have linked to autism.

Behavioral scientist Brendan Nyhan tested a variety of vaccine-related messages and came up empty-handed. While one line of messaging did make parents rethink the falsehood of the autism link, they bizarrely decided nonetheless in greater numbers to avoid the vaccination.

Here’s the awful truth and what should be done. And the lessons work well for all communicators and corporate leaders even if you are not in the trenches of a spotty vaccine war.

Mistake #1: Repeating myths

When you repeat the myth while trying to debunk it, you do two things. First you introduce the myth to some who have never heard of it, and in some research findings, as many as 40 percent then believe the myth. Second, by repeating the myth many times you unintentionally convert "false claims into recommendations" as one piece of research bears out. Create alternative lines of narrative instead of repeating the myth as a falsehood.

Mistake #2: Vilifying opponents

Understand that your audiences have different and emotional worldviews that frame their beliefs and choices. Their personal identity is inextricably tied to their stance on an issue. Instead of discounting opponents as idiots, research shows (Jason Reifler & Brendan Nyhan) that first affirming the opponents works better (instead of "hey moron—you’re killing your kids" try this: "I know you love your kids every bit as much as we do…").

Mistake #3: Creating negative social norms

This is a common mistake across all fronts from littering to binge drinking, from health policy to employee communications: Do not create the impression "everyone is behaving badly;" instead reveal the majority who are already exhibiting the desired behavior. This creates an implied social norm.

Mistake #4: Underestimating risk aversion

Nobel Prize-winning research shows humans value avoiding a loss two to three times greater than reaping a gain. If people feel there is a risk to taking an action (such as a vaccine) they will avoid it. You must prove the bigger risk is not taking the action.

Christopher Graves is the global chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations, chair of the PR Council and a trustee of the Institute for PR. His monthly column appears in Campaign Asia-Pacific.

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