The tricky internal and corporate comms challenge of jabs for jobs

With light at the end of the lockdown tunnel, we now know we’ll need some kind of COVID-19 ‘vaccine certificate’ to go on a foreign holiday (remember those?), but not to huddle in a wet pub garden with five friends.

Anticipate the reaction of employees and use comms to manage situations that arise, advises Alex Black
Anticipate the reaction of employees and use comms to manage situations that arise, advises Alex Black

When it comes to going back to the workplace, the issue is less clear. Employment lawyers have warned against following Pimlico Plumbers’ ‘no jab, no job’ policy, but ministers accept they will not legally be able to stop companies demanding vaccinations as a condition of employment if it’s written into contracts.

This forces business owners into a particularly tricky comms challenge. Some staff will quit if they have to return to the workplace before all employees had been vaccinated (14 per cent, according to a recent survey by Glassdoor), and a recent poll by PRWeek sister title Campaign found a third of adland workers would not feel comfortable working alongside people who have not been vaccinated.

But pushing vaccine advocacy with staff too hard can make an organisation look like an uncaring bully. And a wrong decision followed by an embarrassing policy reverse could mean a double-hit to a corporate reputation.

So, how to tread the vaccine comms tightrope? Here are five things to consider.

Who makes the call?

The stance an organisation takes on staff vaccination will have a direct impact on its reputation, so comms professionals should be at the centre of a group of senior decision-makers, alongside HR and legal experts.

Risk assessment and scenario planning

The senior team needs to think through what stances the organisation might realistically take on the issue – from leaving it as a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ issue, to publicly encouraging staff to vaccinate – and go over how they might play out with a fine-tooth comb. What employer liability issues might be in play? How might staff react? What about customers, or partners, or regulators? Plotting likely negative outcomes from each action, a ‘heatmap’ will prioritise potential problems.

External stakeholders

If an organisation is going to take a strong stance with staff, it will almost certainly leak into the public domain, so the comms team needs to look at how external stakeholders will be affected. How will they be communicated with – and by whom? What does a communications cascade look like for the different audiences?

Employee empowerment

Ask staff what they think. Find additional ways to give them reassurance, such as regular lateral flow tests. Taking the temperature and giving staff a way to shape the organisation’s approach can nip any issues in the bud.

Reassure and educate staff

Transparency, sensitivity and dialogue are vital when dealing with an emotive subject like health. If organisations decide their best strategy is to actively encourage staff to vaccinate, the principal messages should focus on reassurance – around personal protection from a potentially deadly disease, protection for others, protection of the health services, protection against future lockdowns.

Alex Black is a director in BCW’s issues and public affairs practice

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