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WATCH: How to talk (well) about the coronavirus vaccines

Communication experts offer tips to help everyday people engage in productive communication about the coronavirus vaccines.

When Christina Long got the chance to receive her COVID-19 vaccination, she tried to energize others to join her.

A communication professional who owns CML Collective in Wichita, Long has worked with Sedgwick County and the Kansas Leadership Center to connect diverse communities with facts about the pandemic. One of her current challenges is tackling information and access gaps when it comes to getting the vaccine.

But even she has faced challenges communicating about the vaccines with people she knows.

“There was a vaccine clinic that one of my partner companies who I worked with that they offered, and so they were going to make it open to people who I work with,” she says. “So, I went ahead and I signed up for it. And I encouraged others very close to me, they made the process easy. So come on, let’s get vaccinated. And even and some of my personal circles, there is that hesitancy.”

One person responded by saying: “Oh, Christina, thank you so much for letting me know, but I’ll just wait to see if you live or die first.”

It turned out to be more than just a joke.

“They were serious because that person did not come to the clinic.”

But Long did not give up. She sent over a couple of photos when she did get vaccinated. And she got a little bit “ornery.”

“I sent a picture that someone took with me mid blink, when I got my shots like my eyes were half open.

“I said, Well, what do you think? They’re like, ‘this is not helping me.’”

But it helped that she could have a little bit of fun while also encouraging others to get their COVID-19 vaccinations.

“We’ve got to be able to find some silver linings in all of this sadness that has wrapped through our country, as relates to COVID,” she says.

Christina’s story illustrates dynamics that communication researchers such as Dr. Brett Bricker of the University of Kansas are beginning to better understand. Stories tend trump facts and people want to hear about the experiences of family and friends.

“I started writing about vaccines well before the COVID vaccine,” Bricker says.

He and a colleague, Jacob Justice, focused on public understanding of the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine and concerns about its ties to autism.

“What we found was that the science was similarly overwhelmingly clear,” Bricker says. “The CDC had done longitudinal studies on millions of children that had received this vaccine and showed no correlation between the likelihood of getting a vaccine and autism. So, what we started to study was the patterns of behaviors in the people that were skeptical of the vaccine or downright anti vaxxers.”

They homed in on a phenomenon known as the post-modern medical paradigm, “which is basically the idea that people no longer believe that their doctor has more useful information to them than their Facebook friend.”

“People no longer think that a study done of a million people is more believable than a story that they hear on Twitter from their friend,” Bricker says, “And the whole concept of expertise, in the medical community has been flattened … What it means to be an expert in an area is not necessarily something that the public really comprehends, or that large segments of the population really care to really ascertain.”

In the social media age, many people like to make their decisions based on their own research. And in a world awash in information, it is not hard to confirm your own intuition.

“If you search hard enough, you can find someone that agrees with you. And that’s actually a very validating feeling,” Bricker says. “That goes back very much to this postmodern medical paradigm where, yes, people want to be empowered to make their own decisions, and they want to feel as if they can shape their own path in whatever it is they seek to do. In this case, that runs directly counter to some of the things that we need to reach herd immunity in our state.”

Recent polling suggests large majorities of Americans are willing to get one of the COVID vaccines or have already received it. But certain Americans are more skeptical than others.

For the vaccines to be most effective at ending the pandemic, large numbers of Americans, as many as 85% by some estimates, must choose to get the shots. And it must be their choice, Bricker says, because mandates tend to harden skeptics’ opposition.

“My hypothesis is that there is something very central to the American identity, and in particular, the conservative American identity, that one should be able to have free rein over their choices, that their liberty is paramount,” Bricker says.

Because people do not want a decision forced on them by the government, it means significant numbers of Americans will need to be persuaded rather than coerced. But not every group sees the issue in the same way.

“Vaccine hesitancy or vaccine skepticism is a very broad catch all category that fits some very unique problems,” Bricker says. “So, I think that the types of concerns that are faced in the Latin American and Native and black communities in Kansas, are very different than the concerns that are faced by white evangelicals and conservative men in the state … So, the messages that will be used to persuade those two populations are very, very different.”

For instance, Bricker says community centers and churches could play big roles in communities with large populations of people with Latin American heritages, in part because people from those areas can have historically fraught relationships with governments.

When it comes to the African American community, among others, Long says it is important vaccines are promoted with culturally responsive messaging. That is something that worked for Long and officials in Sedgwick County with COVID prevention.

“I’ll be quite honest, if we’re looking at targeting African Americans with messaging, but there is not an African American that is included in … the brand’s look or included on the imagery,” Long says, “then is that truly a message that is for me?”

Everything, from the color schemes in advertising to the language matters, Long says.

“Are we talking in terms of medical jargon? Or are we actually synthesizing and translating that information so that anyone who picks up that message can be able to read it and understand it and act upon it?”

But it is hard to persuade anyone if you are not really willing to try to understand their concerns. There are understandable reasons why some might be reluctant to get the vaccines.

For one thing, the vaccines followed an unusually speedy path to distribution, and use technologies that might be less familiar to some. Others might fear the side effects from a shot more than they do the virus at this point, despite evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, and the virus remains harmful for many.

“I try to have a conversation pretty much every day with someone about a vaccine,” Bricker says.

In one recent conversation with a vaccine-hesitant individual, Bricker says he heard how the person had a friend who went to the hospital after getting the COVID vaccine. The friend was nauseous and suffered from dehydration.

“The power of that power of that particular example was far overwhelming any of the examples I could have given to the contrary,” Bricker says. “That goes back to the power of narrative, the power of intimate interpersonal connections, that kind of outweighs the importance of these scientific facts.”

But Bricker has developed an approach he has found effective.

“So first, and most importantly, you have to be willing to listen,” Bricker says. “That listening might be very frustrating … For example, if you don’t believe that there is a Chinese microchip in the vaccine, but someone else does, you still need to listen to why they believe that and the fears that come with them from that.”

Step two is to never start with a declarative sentence, Bricker says. He always asks questions first.

“Don’t assume that, you know all the answers,” Bricker says. “Because a lot of these concerns, they have a kernel of legitimacy to them … When you’re asking questions, be willing to say, I don’t know the answer to that exactly.”

It is also important to be realistic about the potential outcomes from any one conversation, Bricker says.

“You’re not always going to get from step a to step z with (someone having a) vaccine card in hand in one conversation.”

The third step is to come to an agreement.

“That agreement can very easily be, let’s agree to have another conversation about this in two days,” Bricker says. ”What I’ve found … is that that does kind of get to the heart of at least some people’s concerns.”

(It might also be said that vaccine skeptics could take the same steps – listen first, ask questions, come to an agreement – in their conversations with vaccine advocates.)

Long acknowledges that it can be difficult to put yourself out there because people have so many different viewpoints on the issue.

“Be willing to understand that if you do share, especially on social media, you might get some of those negative comments and that’s okay,” Long says. “You do not have to go back and forth with people in conversation … You can just listen and acknowledge and validate their concerns by saying, ‘I hear what you’re saying, I understand. But for me, this is what worked for me. And this is why.’ And let that be.

“You never know what you could say that can motivate people to put down the battle gear, and just listen in order to come to their own understanding or even to help clarify their position on where they do stand.”

Most people just want to be heard and may not fully realize just how common their concerns are and that there’s information available to address them.

“Some people have a concern that they just don’t think anybody else has thought about yet,” Bricker says. “They think, you know, I’ve got this problem, and this is my problem. And once they realize that other people out there have thought about this, and other people have had conversations about this, then their attachment to that concern begins to lessen.”

The bottom line, communication experts say, is that the individual leadership of everyday people communicating with the people who trust them matters when it comes to promoting the vaccine, perhaps even more than the choices of those with high levels of authority or notoriety.

“What we’re seeing is, some of the hesitancy is starting to be combated just a little bit, because more and more people are going to get vaccinated,” Long says. “And not just people like celebrities … But the people who again, we live, work, worship and play with … in our communities.

Being a champion for COVID vaccination does not have to be complicated, Long says. You can do it by just being specific, she says.

“Sometimes it boils down to just being comfortable carrying the conversation with them about your vaccine experience,” Long says. “Being basic, too … ‘What did you do?’ How did you go and get an appointment? Who did you call? Did you go through the internet? What kind of information did you have to have? What did you have to show? What were the lines? Where did you park?’”

The power of social media gives everyday people the opportunity to influence their networks, she says.

“Social media continues to be a predominant force of information,” Long says. “So being willing to share some of that on social media as well and your networks.

Some leadership from everyday Kansans might just provide one more step in the direction of Kansans being able to put the pandemic behind them.

The spring Journal cover is a syringe shooting confetti

This article is adapted from a video being premiered during the Spring 2021 Journal Launch event. The Journal is a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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