Thanks to a measles outbreak at the happiest place on earth, our news feeds have all been filled with what we already know: vaccines work and are safe, but some people — primarily between 2000 and 2011 — opted to not vaccinate their children, and now we’re paying the price. The “why” has been examined to no end. But we’ve heard little about the “how” — how did so many parents come to follow the anti-vaccination movement? What I know anecdotally is that it was one of the most powerful word-of-mouth PR campaigns of my lifetime. And now we need an equally powerful PR campaign to fix it.
The rise of the anti-vaccination movement
The anti-vaccine movement, which generally spiked between 2000 and 2011, rode the coattails of the internet and social media boom. We were new to this whole Facebook thing, perhaps even naïve. The word-of-mouth category of publicity was born, and it gave relatively underground movements, like anti-vaccination, a rapt platform among concerned parents. No medical degree, no scientific research required to be an expert.
It also came at a time when trust in corporations hit a record low. Enron, the collapse of the real estate market, the emergence of awareness over the quality (or lack thereof) of food on supermarket shelves. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in pharmaceutical companies has been especially low, hovering between 53% and 59% between 2009 and 2014, and ranking only slightly higher than media and banks. And vaccines became the scapegoat for this lack of trust.
Does PR hold the answer?
PR often gets a bad rap. But PR can do so much good. And I think PR could be the first important step towards saving lives by rebuilding our trust in vaccines.
First, we need trusted spokespeople.
But we’re not looking for another Jenny McCarthy. Chiropractors, naturopaths, religious leaders, healthy/natural living icons. These are the types of trusted sources that can turn the tide.
Second, we need a widespread, multi-media information campaign.
We need to demystify vaccine ingredients (a key function of the anti-vax campaign was to confuse by breaking down the complicated vaccine ingredients) and personify these horrible diseases vaccines prevent. We are so lucky in that most of us have never seen polio or diphtheria. It’s so easy to write them off as “not that bad.” Profiles of disease victims, in print, online and broadcast media, would help. A compelling ad campaign would, too.
Third, we may not be able to separate vaccines from their pharmaceutical parent companies.
So Big Pharma needs its own separate trust-building campaign. Form a coalition, pull back the curtain, and let a national team of PR professionals change the public’s perception of Big Pharma. There are so many stories, I can only imagine, to be told about the amazing things pharmaceutical products and people are doing in the world. Share those stories, turn the tide. It’d be the greatest underdog story, at least in terms of corporate public perception, in recent history.
Fourth, social media was huge in creating the anti-vaccination movement, and could be equally huge in shutting it down.
Already, just due to a shift in public attitudes over social media toward the anti-vax movement — from apathetic (“do whatever you want with your own children”) to “wait, my baby got whopping cough because we’ve lost herd immunity, and I’m pissed!” — we’ve seen under-vaccination rates go down. For the first time in 12 years, the number of California parents who cite personal beliefs in refusing to vaccinate their kindergarteners dropped in 2014. Enlisting celebrities and thought leaders to share their vaccination stories or battles with preventable diseases would encourage the same among everyday parents. Hey Beyoncé, is Blue vaccinated? I’d bet she’s got 99 problems, but measles won’t be one.
PR has done many wonderful things in the name of public health. PR was enlisted to cut meth use in California. PR has been used to boost body image and improve the mental health of women. And now I’d love to see PR turn around a dangerous trend and improve our public health.