The comms prescription for eliminating confusion about vaccinations

Parents are not the only ones confused. Some physicians have added to the fury and misunderstanding of the facts.

Medicine in the US has worked wonders to eliminate so many diseases over the years. The recent measles outbreak in California is catching the attention of physicians, hospitals, policymakers, and parents across the country, and putting a new focus on childhood vaccinations.

As communicators, we need to follow this closely. Parents are not the only ones confused. Some physicians have added to the fury and misunderstanding of the facts. We must actively work with our experts to educate the public about what's true and what is not.

Misinformation to the public about linking vaccines to autism or that measles "aren’t that bad" drives major confusion about what is best for children and those around them. Furthermore, studies that are retracted for invalidity should be equally promoted and covered by the media to ensure that factual information is front and center. From a PR perspective, we are uniquely poised to speak out and educate the public at large with the best, most accurate information available.

The public debate is bringing up some very poignant questions. Should parents have the ability to decide whether to vaccinate their children and, in some cases, claim exemptions? Are vaccines safe and effective? If children are not vaccinated, how serious is the risk to others? What should be done?

As both a parent and healthcare communicator, I truly appreciate the importance of this matter because the consequences to the public can be quite serious. To engage in this discussion, we reached out to Eric Kodish, MD, director of ethics, humanities and spiritual care at Cleveland Clinic. We turn to him frequently to educate our team about matters of public health and ethical issues that need to be well translated to the public. Dr. Kodish is often featured in news stories related to this subject. Together, we determine the best communications strategy and important messages that we, as a leading healthcare organization, want to deliver to the public at large.

We have been monitoring news coverage, of course, but Dr. Kodish is in contact with other experts across the country who are seeing the effects first hand. They are deliberating expert to expert about the right thing to do. As this will continue to evolve, so must our messages as we guide the public discussion on this very important topic. Dr. Kodish’s op-ed, posted in Everyday Health this past Monday, is an example of what concerns are emerging. As PR pros, it is our job to combat the myths, correct misinformation, and push out the most important educational messages to reach all appropriate audiences.

As we develop our communications plans and documents to share information internally (with employees and our physicians) and externally (with patients, key influencers, and the media), we are working to engage stakeholders to understand that vaccines are safe, necessary, and can prevent serious consequences to the population. Through op-eds, consumer-friendly messages, social media, and more, our job is to make sure the public knows getting children vaccinated has great benefits to us all.

Eileen Sheil is executive director of corporate communications at Cleveland Clinic, one of the country's top nonprofit academic medical centers. Her column will focus on the myriad challenges of healthcare PR and topics related to the management of the comms function. Sheil can be reached at sheile@ccf.org.

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