Opinion

It’s vital to put faces to the vaccine of COVID-19

As the world gradually undergoes the COVID-19 vaccine, Corporate Reputation Practice managing director Peter Roberts says its story relies just as much on the human element as the scientific.

The vaccines are coming. More precisely, COVID-19 vaccinations are already being administered in large parts of the world at varying speeds, while it will be March before the Australian Federal Government have their needles at the ready.

The exercise is a mammoth communications exercise, which is made harder by the determined levels of suspicion levelled at the idea of vaccinating. Way before COVID-19 became the viral poster child, the World Health Organisation listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the biggest threats to global health. The COVID-19 conspiracy chorus, fed by a ragbag of intransigent celebrities has done nothing to soothe the situation. To that end, a recent survey by the Associated Press found that a quarter of US adults “weren’t sure” if they wanted to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Granted, the picture in Australia is far less recalcitrant, but the reality is there are people who have misgivings about vaccinating, whether that is borne of fear or ideology, which brings me to my argument.

It’s the people, stupid, or in campaign terms, if you want ‘em to vaccinate, tell ‘em about the people who made it. Scientific and medical breakthroughs have always been about the people, whether it’s Fleming and penicillin; Christiaan Barnard and his hearts, or Crick and Watson and DNA. As an audience, we can relate to these individual stories and so they become memorable. Their efforts talk to attributes which the rest of us crave – tenacity, wisdom, and inventiveness. We go as far as holding them up to our children as emblems of hard work and possibility – “look what you can achieve if you try hard enough!”.

For communicators, their magic, quite simply, is they have a face. We can subsequently, personalise campaigns and with personalisation, comes greater trust. We can see the whites of their eyes and they look like you and me. Audiences tend to find it harder to distrust individuals, versus the organisations they work for.

Astra Zeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and BioNTech are superbly effective businesses, who all do important work; in fact, they do very important work – their products can keep us alive – but the ‘body corporate ‘is deemed far less trustworthy than the individual men and women who run them. Case in point, Edelman’s widely reported Trust Barometer found that 50% of respondents in Australia questioned if “capitalism did more harm than good”. It is easier for audience members to feel empowered enough to condemn big (read profitable), faceless organisations; especially with names that would suggest they come from other planets.

The fact that the vaccine breakthrough was engineered and managed by these institutions (together with Oxford University) is not contested but framing the story in corporate terms loses sight of those individual exertions and emotions we can all relate to at times of such challenges. And as any discerning communicator knows, if our audience can connect with our campaigns, their levels of engagement will be far more meaningful. Pharmaceuticals work furiously at an image of control and dispassionate efficiency, but in undermining any resistance to the vaccine, it’s a must that they get behind the polished livery and show us the blood, sweat and tears.

Peter Roberts is the managing director of the Corporate Reputation Practice.

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