A measles outbreak in the happiest place on earth is straining our news feeds.
This we know: Measles vaccines work and are safe, but some people— primarily between the years 2000 and 2011—chose not to vaccinate their children.
Today, Disneyland in California is one unhappy place as many people are paying the price for choices strangers made a few years ago.
“Why?” has been examined ad nauseam. However, we’ve heard little about the “how”: How did so many parents come to the decision to not vaccinate their children? The anti-measles vaccine movement was one of the most powerful word-of-mouth PR campaigns in my lifetime.
Now, we need an equally powerful PR campaign to fix it.
[RELATED: Now is the time to re-visit your crisis plan — if you have one.]
A dangerous time
The anti-vaccine movement, which spiked between 2000 and 2011, rode the coattails of the rise of the Internet and social media. We were new to Facebook, perhaps naïve. Word-of-mouth publicity on Facebook was born, and gave underground movements like anti-vaccination a 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. There was Enron, the collapse of the real estate market and the emergence of awareness over the quality of food on supermarket shelves.
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer , trust in pharmaceutical companies has been especially low, hovering around 55 percent between 2009 and 2014, ranking slightly higher than trust in the media and banks. Vaccines became the scapegoat for lack of trust in other institutions.
PR often gets a bad rap. It can do much good. A PR campaign could be the first step towards saving lives by rebuilding our trust in vaccines.
Four points are critical:
We need trusted spokespeople. We’re not looking for another Jenny McCarthy. Chiropractors, naturopaths, religious leaders and healthy and natural living advocates are trusted sources who can turn the tide.
We need a widespread, multi-media information campaign. We need to demystify vaccine ingredients, keeping in mind that a key element of the anti-vaccine campaign was to confuse by breaking down the complicated serum and ingredients. We must personify the diseases vaccines prevent. We owe it to vaccines that most of us have never seen a living human with polio or diphtheria. It’s easy to dismiss them as “not that bad.” Profiles of disease victims, in print, online and in broadcast media, would help. A compelling ad campaign would, too.
We may not be able to separate vaccines from the pharmaceutical companies that make them. Therefore, pharma must wage its own separate trust-building campaign. They must form a coalition, pull back the curtain, and let a national team of PR professionals change the public’s perception of Big Pharma. Many stories can be told about the amazing results that medicines and vaccines deliver to people around the world. Share those stories. Turn the tide. It would be the greatest reversal-of-public-opinion-about-corporations story in recent history.
Social media created the anti-vaccine movement. Social media PR could be equally powerful in shutting it down. Already, because of a shift in public attitudes on social media toward the anti-vaccination movement from apathy (“do whatever you want with your own children”) to alarmed activism (“Wait, my baby got whopping cough because we’ve lost mass 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 non-celebrity parents. Hey Beyoncé, is your daughter Blue vaccinated?
PR has done many wonderful things in public health. PR was enlisted to cut meth use in California . PR has boosted body image and improved the mental health of women .
I’d love to see PR turn around this dangerous anti-vaccination trend.
Kelda Rericha is a PR professional who has worked with Nike, Starbucks, and Microsoft. She is the mother of three boys. This post was originally published on AWordsmithComm.com, a boutique PR agency website.