Going Upstream: Communicating the Importance of a COVID-19 Vaccine

Politely stealing from Dan Heath’s new book, Upstream, let me paint this picture for you from an old public health parable with which he opens.

In summary: Imagine two people sitting next to a river, hearing a child yelling for help. One dives in and saves the child. They go back to visiting and hear another child. The other dives in and saves the second child. Then another child. This continues with both diving in one after the other, saving child after child, until one of the individuals starts walking away upstream. The friend asks, “Where are you going?” The response? “Upstream to stop whoever is throwing these kids in.”

Examining the concept of preventing problems before they occur, how little did Dan Heath likely know the extreme relevance his book would carry as we wage war against COVID-19? While there are many interesting aspects of his premise, what’s perhaps worth noting in this case is that when you think of upstream, it’s not a single destination. There are multiple points on the continuum that can impact change. But what’s not often discussed enough is the critical role marketing, communications and education play across all of them.

Think about what the hospitals and health systems call the three W’s.

  1. Wash your hands frequently.
  2. Wear a face covering or mask.
  3. Watch your distance (6 feet or more).

These are all upstream solutions to COVID-19, working best when paired together. They create impact, and they reduce risk of infection and spread. But they certainly are not the only upstream opportunities when it comes to our current coronavirus crisis.

You may have been thinking about it based on the title, saying in your head: “THE UPSTREAM SOLUTION IS A VACCINE, Chowning.” And yes, that’s true. However, we have numerous potential downstream problems to proactively address in order to make it a viable upstream solution. In fact, persuasive communications and marketing run the risk of being one of the most significant hurdles in ensuring a vaccine packs the punch we collectively need as a nation.

Drug manufacturers can accelerate clinical trials that take years and produce viable vaccines, but the broad effectiveness is contingent on a significant percentage of our population actually receiving the vaccine. And if you think everyone will do it because, well, COVID, think again.

As a marketing and communications professional, this both terrifies and excites me. Behavior change, awareness and education all take time when we target different audiences. They are slow-burn activities with long-lasting results when done well. But in this case, the education and awareness play must take the same “warp speed” mentality as the drug manufacturers testing and producing the vaccine.

We don’t know which vaccine or vaccines will make it through, we don’t know what the side effects will be and we don’t know when they will be here. But we do know for the public health of the communities and countries we live in that we have to ensure a public sense of responsibility to go get the vaccine as soon as it is available.

While an extreme scenario, I bet any marketing communications professional has faced similar challenges to a lesser degree with a company, product or concept in the past. And the same principles that likely applied to that scenario become key considerations for education and awareness as we face adoption barriers to a COVID-19 vaccine.

How Marketing Communications Can Help Ensure Adoption of a COVID-19 Vaccine
  1. Understand the audiences, grasp the why. As is the case with any other campaign or brand launch, we first have to understand the audiences. In this case, think anti-vaccine groups as a start, but we then have to look at political belief systems, groups disproportionately impacted by the virus, community sentiments and so much more. With each group, beyond identifying and understanding who they are and how they think, we need to seek to understand why they think what they think in order to communicate in a meaningful way.
  2. Get ahead of the challenges. Early trials already show that some vaccines produce a response that includes fever and other side effects. While this is completely normal, it won’t come across that way if not proactively shared. You can already see the headlines of some articles or ill-informed social posts that could further solidify anti-vaccine stances or even make those previously on board begin to question. The reality is the more information that can be shared proactively in the right places and at the right times, the more the conversation can be controlled.
  3. Make it relatable with the right voices and stories. Great storytelling can create emotion, make us reconsider a belief and call us to act in a deeper way than when simply told to do something. Especially when we examine different audience segments and demographics, creating powerful stories delivered by trusted individuals will be a critical driver. Many cities, hospitals and health systems are already calling on well-known local or national figures to deliver messages around prevention, and this will certainly be the case in conversations about vaccine adoption.
  4. Avoid one size fits all. When considering education and awareness for COVID-19 vaccines, it’s like multiple campaigns within campaigns. And this couldn’t be more true for the marketing mix that will need to be employed for each audience. What channels does each target segment use the most? What types of communication and tone work the best? What words would they most likely search? It will be different from one group to the next, so to create true perception change, a carefully tailored approach is core to getting upstream.

I’m not a scientist. I can’t speak to all the facts and figures related to vaccination effectiveness or herd immunity, nor do I have the ability to determine how the critical players will work together or independently to create a sense of personal responsibility in order for people to seek the vaccine. But I do know if we’ve learned anything from how polarizing and difficult it’s been to convince people to wear a mask, there is equal risk and opportunity when it comes to paving the way for a COVID-19 vaccine. There’s no better time to get upstream and launch the best public health campaign for everyone’s sake.