When Covid-19 came onto the scene, many people thought it would remain in regional and dissipate after a few months. Many Coronaviruses before it have remained mostly regional with some impacts on other locations, such as MERS-CoV(Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), SARS, Bird-Flu, Swine Flu etc.
Unfortunately, Covid-19 defied the experts, exhibiting unusual viral markers making it highly contagious and deadly. Increasingly animal viruses are making the mutant leap to humans. The earliest reports of coronavirus were in respiratory infections in North American Chickens called IBV.
Not surprisingly, the Coronavirus, is used principally in science particularly for research on making a virus take on new attributes (Gain of function) or weaponizing . The first human contracted coronavirus were discovered in the UK in 1960s by the British Medical Research Council. Concerns for both the US and China regarding key labs has been ongoing. Most notably research funded by the US National Institute of Health (NIH) which was argued to be possibly “gain of function” research detailed in a 2017 scientific paper, “Discovery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS-related Coronaviruses provides new insights into SARS coronavirus.” Ever increasing the more surrounding its origin.
The trouble with all of this however, for most Americans, is not its origin, but the massive vaccine rollout surrounded by an abhorrent public relations and outreach campaign. While lockeddown Americans were sure that US Pharmaceutical companies were busy at work trying to formulate a cure, a treatment or a vaccine; many were not prepared for the rapidity of the rollout or the tone of the invitation.
Nations around the world had already tred uncharted waters by shutting down whole economies, passing legislation on PPE and creating stay at home orders that trapped millions in their own homes for weeks and months on end. So rolling out an experimental vaccine developed in under a year was bound to have consequences, skeptics and legitimate concerns. A consistent, well-planned public health campaign that addressed those concerns was paramount.
While initial vaccine penetration has been somewhat consistent according to CDC numbers, but messaging has always been a struggle. Phrases like “ant-vaxxers,” “the unvaccinated” and “Covid-19 denier” has crept easily into the public-facing vernacular. Additionally, targeting specific demographics within the American population has been a challenge as methods and messaging hit tone-deaf across the board eroding confidence in both the target demographics and the wider public. Much of the messaging fails to answer the fundemental issue: Trust.
Trust can’t be rammed through, guilted, prodded and forced down the throats of citizens without terrible consequences and damage to the authenticity of the “brand,” product or company. Real outreach and public relations must answer the question of trust. It must be both willing to teach and change messaging to address concerns. It must address the folklore surrounding it.
Trust cannot be forged wuthout addressing and acknowledging historic issues of medical malpractice and mistrust earned in heinous scenarios like the US Tuskegee experiment that knowingly infected Black American men with disease, the US Guatemala Syphilis Experiment that killed nearly 100 Guatemalans and sterilization campaigns among others that conducted experimentation on human subjects with horrific results.
It will be difficult to create trust or buy-in without acknowledging a dark past and providing satisfactory information to help such populations make a decision. Gaslighting demographics regarding its legitimate historical concerns about state-sponsored medicine and medical malpractice only serves to erode the trust of everyone who is witness to the disingenuity.
Telling populations that experimental or new science is “safe,” is simply not good enough. Particularly for public health initiatives and public service campaigns. The operative word in both community relations and public relations is “relations.” Medical experts and public relations professionals must acknowledge associated risks and illucidate the science as well as address the special nuances of each community. That means there can be no dismissal of historical malignant malpractice or negative race-based health outcomes.
Real communities require dialogue in large-scale public service initiatives. Real communities require time for buy-in. Not fear-mongering, invectives or bullying. A black and white, “sticks or carrots” approach is a recipe for disaster, as we have seen. Particularly in cases where medicine and health is involved, populations need to understand their choices and the consequences of those choices in a measured and clear way. A clear campaign that offers guidance and stability is needed in times of crisis. Tailoring campaigns to have higher EQ (Emotional Quotient) than IQ can make all of the difference in some cases.
The zero sum approach of many campaigns in developed countries are indicative of the Western thought. Unfortunately, in a world pandemic crisis, that strategy backfires with dire consequences. There have been protests, demonstrations and violence regarding everything from mask mandates, shutdowns to Covid passes similar to some measures required during authoritarian periods against key populations.
Also cliche and stereotypical campaigns targeted at subgroups and minority demographics only serve to alienate the message even more. Patronizing campaigns even disillusion onkeers outside of the target community who evaluate such forays as unserious and disingenuous creating more mistrust.
There are ways to positively incentivize behavior, but Television, grocery card and money giveaways are just not it. It ignores the intelligence of target populations and panders to a percieved poverty, avarice or stupidity to exchange ones health for trinket gifts without understanding the weight of the choice being made.
Currently the dialogue surrounding the vaccine grows more confrontational, often belittling and authoritarian. Knowing your population and its culture helps you to know that some methods will be more effective than others. Attacking social media, rather than engaging community, or tackling the task of educating the populace is a public outreach misstep that can and should be corrected. The world has changed and old PR methodologies simply won’t work.
Acknowledging that populations have changed and become more savvy and critical is more beneficial to an ongoing campaign, than being so in love with an ineffective message that you are willing to ram it down your populations throat and permanently damage your republic, democracy, kingdom, etc.
The success of public relations and community outreach in public health and public service campaigns greatly relies on the sensitivity and strategy of the PR or communications professional(s) involved. Those with lack of exposure and appreciation for the nuance of disparate populations, cultural complexity and a real grounding in humanity will create horrendous campaigns that drag reputations and relations down. Because-I-Said-So Marketing is dead and will continue to create disaster for those who employ it. Without the humane touch, we have forgotten the real magic behind both PR and Community Relations: Humanity.