Why you should start planning now for your COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Crisis comms veteran Andy Gilman offers advice to organizations based on his work with Johnson & Johnson and Tylenol, and later advising the Canadian government during the SARS outbreak.


Communicators know that getting widespread adoption for the COVID-19 vaccine, especially with reports of heavy skepticism from consumers about the medicine, will require a heavy lift.

However, experts like Andrew Gilman, a veteran of the historic crisis communications effort around Tylenol and Johnson & Johnson in the ‘80s and an advisor to the Canadian government on SARS, argue that early efforts can help break down resistance. Gilman likens the strategy to brands like Apple or Guess, which flood the zone with marketing messages sometimes years before a product is available. An early marketing communications effort could make all the difference for getting your key stakeholders to take the vaccine—and getting your business back on track.

“There’s going to be a ton of information from the state public health department,” Gilman says, information from where to get your vaccine to who should be prioritized to get their shots first. Gilman adds that what will be a persuasive message to one organization’s employees and stakeholders will not necessarily work for another organization.

That’s why he’s created what he is calling Project RESTART, and is arguing that communicators should get involved instead of leaving this as an HR issue. Gilman says, “If you start now, a good CEO can say: ‘Here’s what’s going to happen over the next six or eight months. We’re going to keep you informed.’ ” In this way, your organization can build essential relationships and trust.

Know your legal limits

Gilman says that it’s crucial to bring in a wide range of voices for what he foresees as a multiple-month effort. The team he’s bringing in to create a brain trust of advisors on the issue includes lawyers, health experts and crisis comms advisors. A diverse range of expertise will help you avoid mistakes that are lurking behind a once-in-a-generation public health crisis.

For example, Gilman says he learned that there are legal limits when it comes to mandating the vaccine for employees. “I didn’t know until I talked to a former commissioner of the FDA, you cannot mandate the vaccine until it gets full approval by the FDA,” he says. “An emergency use product cannot be mandated for any population, even nurses in the hospital or even military,” and so far COVID-19  vaccines, like the one from Pfizer, have only been granted emergency use status.

Prime your audience

Even though healthy employees likely are months away from getting a vaccine, Gilman argues that you should be driving messages home about what is coming and what to expect.

“It’s classic marketing strategy and techniques,” Gilman says. “Let the marketplace know that a product is coming. “Know that we are on your side and we’re gonna do everything possible to keep you informed.”

With new information and consistent updates, Gilman says organizations must build messaging that offers reassurance so that when the vaccine finally is available, doubts have been sufficiently reduced.

Identify who your people trust

Every audience will be different, depending on demographics, geography, personal beliefs and more. Now is an important time to start identifying what factors—and influencers—will drive acceptance for your target audience. Will it be former President Barack Obama getting a vaccine that our audience will trust? Will it be a local rabbi or community leader? Their private physician?

You can also identify what other questions your audience will have about the vaccine that might prevent them from receiving the shot. Gilman gives an example: “It might be reinforcing the idea that your medical plan that you have through your company will pay for [the shot]. Even though the government says it’s free, people don’t want surprise billing.”

You can also get in front of questions people will have about whether they need the shot if they already have COVID antibodies from having the disease.

Breaking down the timeline

So, what should be the message now, and how will it change in the coming months as we get closer to a vaccine being available for the average employee?

“I would start with a message of probably encouragement,” Gilman says, pointing out that this is basically a “communications persuasion effort.” He advises that organizations start with messages and information from the CDC and state authorities, and then use their own trusted channels, like intranets, to build from there.

Gilman says you should think through the potential individual challenges employees might be facing. (“If you have any employees who are caring for an aging parent or anybody that’s immunocompromised, here’s some information or websites you should be checking.”)

It’s also crucial to consider DE&I when building this messaging. The response to COVID-19 has exposed glaring racial inequalities, with disparate outcomes for Black and brown Americans and lower levels of trust in those communities.

Terri Hartwell Easter, managing principal for T.H. Easter Consulting LLC—and an advisor to Gilman’s CommCore Project RESTART—explains the need for an intersectional approach this way:

As employees begin their return to work, employers must be sensitive to the unique concerns of communities of color in the era of COVID. The anxieties that people of color may feel from the disparate impact COVID has had on their communities to the horror of being used by the government in the past as unwitting subjects in ghoulish health research involving vaccines, cannot be overstated.  It is incumbent upon employers to be mindful of the level of reasonable apprehension and distrust they may encounter when setting requirements for returning to the workplace.

For communicators looking to have the biggest possible impact and help their organizations get vaccinated quickly, the time to start working is right now.


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