Why a traditional, fact-based approach on vaccine comms isn't working

While a straight-to-the-point, fact-based approach is often effective in healthcare PR, it's not the best option for trying to convince skeptical parents that they should vaccinate their children.

The biggest challenge for healthcare PR pros stressing the importance of childhood vaccinations – a hot topic for years that got a new lease on life after the measles outbreak at Disneyland – is finding ways to discuss the emotional issue sensitively, say experts.

More than 120 cases of measles were reported across the country between the start of the year and February 6, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, many skeptics believe vaccines are the culprits behind autism and mental disorders, have religious objections, or believe parents should be able to choose for themselves whether their children should be vaccinated.  

At face value, traditional public health messages, being well-intentioned and factual, might seem like the best way to go. Yet they should be avoided in this case, notes Mike Kuczkowski, Orangefiery founder and CEO.

"Studies have shown that traditional public health messages, which tend to be aggressive and in-your-face, aren’t an effective way of getting people to vaccinate," he adds. "People find them scary, and I don’t think you can scare people into doing this; you have to address their mindset first."

Behavioral change occurs more readily as a result of positive messaging, explains Kate Cronin, who leads Ogilvy’s CommonHealth office in New York. She suggests focusing a message on protecting not just the child receiving the shot, but grandparents and other family members and friends who might be immune-compromised.

Communicators should also avoid shutting down vaccine skeptics – known commonly as "anti-vaxxers" – on the facts, since that rarely persuades people to change their behavior. As Cronin puts it, the finger-wagging and back and forth isn’t helping anyone.

"I don’t think everyone should actively go out and find a soapbox to stand on to espouse their position and make people convert to their beliefs," concurs Sasha Boghosian, SVP at ReviveHealth. "The goal is not to change their belief - it is to alter their behavior."

American Academy of Pediatrics chief public affairs officer Mark Del Monte explains that all parents want the best for their children and to be reassured that any medical treatment or intervention is safe, effective, and necessary.

"Talking to parents openly and frankly about how much confidence pediatricians have in these vaccines, the data about the safety and effectiveness of them, and reassuring them it is the right thing to do is the basic job of a pediatrician these days," he says.

Kuczkowski explains that a communicator’s priorities should be showing parents they are compassionate, willing to listen, and taking their concerns seriously, while at the same time showing them the risks and value of high vaccination rates.

"The message must reiterate the value of vaccination and the importance of doing it on time and on schedule and talking to your healthcare practitioner," Cronin adds.

Health communications experts agree that the best person to emphasize the importance of vaccinations is a child’s pediatrician.

Allison Fischer, a health communications specialist at the CDC, notes that the organization regularly conducts research that proves this point.

"Parents want to have their questions answered by someone they know and have that one-on-one relationship with," she explains. "They want the message directly from the doctor – that is who they trust the most to answer their questions."

To support face-to-face conversations between parents and pediatricians, the CDC provides a host of research-based materials for doctors to give to parents. The materials address questions and concerns parents may have about vaccines.

The CDC also supplies resources to state and local public health departments and has created a website for parents with information. The portal also links to other places they can learn about vaccinations.

The Atlanta-based organization also pushes out facts on its social media pages about the importance of vaccinations and works with partner organizations such as the AAP and the American Academy of Family Physicians to get messages out digitally.

"We mainly want to reach parents of young children, because they are the ones making the choice to vaccinate," Fischer says.

Preventing disease is at the heart of the mission of the AAP, an organization comprised of more than 62,000 pediatricians. Del Monte says the group’s volume of engagement with the media has grown dramatically since the Disneyland measles outbreak.

"Measles is not an insignificant disease; it is a highly contagious infection that is dangerous to children," he explains. "So we are using every PR and comms tool we have to communicate directly to families about vaccinating their children."

The AAP encourages every member pediatrician to talk about the importance of vaccinations during each visit with a family, with local media outlets, and on their practice’s social media pages.

The AAP’s social media accounts provide an outlet for the organization to talk about vaccinations, along with its HealthyChildren.org microsite. On Twitter, AAP uses the hashtag #MeaslesTruth to reach its audience of nearly 35,000 followers.

Aside from doctors, Cronin contends that messaging about this topic should come from credible third-party organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, CDC, WHO, nongovernment organizations, and advocacy groups.

The counterargument
Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the nonprofit National Vaccine Information Center, says the topic of vaccines "has become so polarizing and divisive," that what’s needed is a "civil and substantive conversation on policy issues" rather than mudslinging.

"When you start to dehumanize and marginalize people, you make them afraid to even talk to doctors," she says. "We have a right to ask doctors questions."

The Center’s intent is to educate, and as far as vaccines are concerned, its members "advocate for the inclusion of informed consent," notes Fisher, adding that the flexible exemptions they highlight include medical, religious, and conscientious.

"We don’t make vaccine use recommendations – we’re pro-education, pro-informed consent," she says. "[We] support availability with no access barriers to vaccines for everyone who chooses to use them."

Celebrity influence
Former Playboy playmate, TV host, and actress Jenny McCarthy said she is not anti-vaccine in a guest op-ed in The Chicago Sun-Times published last May. However, BuzzFeed has released a list of 11 things she said that were decidedly anti-vaccine.

Actress Amanda Peet, meanwhile, has served as a celebrity spokesperson for VaccinateYourBaby.org.

An unlikely political football
As prospective candidates position themselves to enter the 2016 presidential race, vaccination has become a hot topic among politicos, more so among Republicans because the party’s primary field will likely be larger than that of the Democrats.

Yet politicians from both parties are continuing to weigh in on the topic.

President Barack Obama: The president turns to science on this topic. While acknowledging some Americans’ wariness toward vaccines, he recently said, "The science is, you know, pretty indisputable." In 2008, he acknowledged concerns about vaccinations causing autism from one audience member at a campaign stop.

Hillary Clinton: The former secretary of state tweeted, "The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork," adding the hashtag #Grandmothersknowbest.

Chris Christie: The likely presidential hopeful has tried to make an argument in favor of personal choice, but it hasn’t been well-received in the media. While noting that his children are vaccinated, the New Jersey governor said, "I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance the government has to decide."

His office later added, "with a disease like measles, there is no question kids should be vaccinated…At the same time, different states require different degrees of vaccination, which is why he was calling for balance in which ones government should mandate."

Rand Paul: As recently as Thursday, likely presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) was working to reframe comments he made about vaccines and autism. When read a quote he previously said about having heard of "many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines," Paul reportedly said he was "misunderstood."

Scott Walker: The Wisconsin governor has made his stance clear on the issue, saying, "Study after study has shown that there are no negative long-term consequences" of vaccinating.

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