After months of waiting, the coronavirus vaccine is finally here. The rollout is beginning globally, but the story around it is muddled. Some are thrilled (perhaps overly so, thinking of the vaccine as a magic bullet that will restore normalcy overnight). Others are skeptical, fearful of the science underpinning the vaccine or the speed with which it was developed.
The New York Times recently reported on the erosion of vaccine-related doubt, but there’s still more we can do to fine-tune the story around the safety and efficacy of the COVID vaccine.
With misinformation floating around out there, it’s incumbent upon the media and government agencies to form a united storytelling front—one that assuages fears and creates an alliance in our fight against the virus.
When it comes to the best approach to win over skeptics and disseminate correct information widely, there are a few smart storytelling moves I’ve seen in recent weeks. These are the strategies we should lean into to get everyone on board with the vaccine.
Start With the Facts
I took AP Biology in high school and was a self-proclaimed #BioNerd, but it’s been a long time since I’ve cracked open the Campbell textbook. We could all use a refresher on mRNA, how vaccines work generally, and why this one is safe.
The virus has rattled our sense of bodily autonomy. What’s scary about COVID is that this invisible thing has the power to invade our bodies and cause a wide range of harmful symptoms (cardiovascular, pulmonary, neurological—the list goes on). So I can genuinely understand increased skepticism around a vaccine right now. After all, it’s another tiny thing that goes into our body and affects great change.
Presenting facts around how it all works in an approachable way gives people back a sense of the agency they’ve lost in the pandemic. When they feel like they’re in the driver’s seat and can make informed decisions about receiving the vaccine, it removes some of the hesitations.
And early research bears that out. In the report mentioned above from the New York Times, positive trial results and the dissemination of evidence around trials were cited as significant factors in changing minds.
Make It Personal
The bystander effect says we’re less likely to intervene in an emergency if we don’t have a personal stake in things. As Psychology Today explains, it comes down to two factors, “The perceived diffusion of responsibility means that the more onlookers there are, the less personal responsibility individuals will feel to take action. Social influence means that individuals monitor the behavior of those around them to determine how to act.”
When it comes to the vaccine, people might not feel like their individual choice to get vaccinated has much influence in the broader world.
To get the story to stick, we must make it more personal. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost their lives to COVID. We need stories that highlight the importance of taking individual responsibility for the broader community’s health. None of us are onlookers in this thing. Each of us has the power to change the course of the spread with our actions.
Encourage Public Figures To Speak Up
When it comes to the social influence piece of the bystander effect puzzle, public figures will have a role to play in changing minds.
Many of our elected officials took to social media to share their experiences getting the vaccine a few weeks ago. This kind of public documentation of the process, from photos of receiving the shot to accounts of how they felt before and after, can help calm fears.
Public support is especially valuable from leaders who had previously sowed doubt about the virus’s severity or the importance of other safety measures handed down by the CDC.
Seeing those who had expressed skepticism in the past make a public turn and accept the vaccine will encourage others to do the same.
Additionally, as more people gain access to the vaccine, it would be wise for health officials to highlight the breadth of people getting the vaccine. Creating a world where it seems like everyone’s getting vaccinated taps into the social influence impulse. People want to be part of the in-crowd; if the in-crowd is getting the shot, others will want it, too.
Put Yourself in the Skeptic’s Shoes
One of the downsides of social media is that it’s trained us to assume the worst in those who don’t share our opinions. But for marketers and storytellers, it’s essential to strive to understand those you’re hoping to reach—even if they seem on another planet, ideologically.
Yes, there are the loud Twitter trolls out there, expressing contrarian views simply to stir up trouble. But the majority of folks who have hesitations around the vaccine are reasonable people who would be open to hearing a compelling argument from the other side.
So we need to put ourselves in the skeptic’s shoes. What is it about the vaccine that makes them nervous? And how can we write a story that addresses those fears in a respectful, persuasive way?
Take, for example, the surveys that show increased skepticism toward the vaccine among Black adults. With our country’s troubling history with race, including poor treatment and increased risk of death for Black pregnant women, the immorality of the Tuskegee experiment, and the vast racial disparities in COVID-related deaths, the hesitation should not come as a surprise.
Health officials and the media must address these legitimate concerns with a frank discussion, an admission of past—and ongoing—wrongs, and a narrative around why things are different here.
Shaming and blaming rarely changes minds. Showing respect and taking the time to listen for what lies at the heart of someone’s objection—and speaking to that—is the key to shifting opinion.
Great storytelling has the power to rally people around a common narrative. And getting everyone on the same page about the COVID vaccine is incredibly important to public health globally. Using the right storytelling techniques, we can create unity and a shared sense of responsibility that will drive greater acceptance of the vaccine.