As a communications consultant, I know something about how to get a message across to a hesitant audience. That’s the challenge facing public health officials in trying to change the minds of the roughly one-third of Americans who, for any number of reasons, have chosen not to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
I’m one of that group myself. I have an autoimmune disease, so I have some serious questions about how the vaccine will affect me. Lots of other Americans have reasonable questions, and those questions should be answered with a transparent presentation of the facts — not browbeating from the likes of President Joe Biden and Anthony Fauci.
Fauci especially has shown himself to be singularly ineffective as the lead communicator in the fight against COVID and should step aside from that role.
Bullying Tactics Are the Wrong Communications Strategy
Fauci and other government officials are taking the wrong advice when it comes to communicating with those who have yet to get the vaccine. I always tell clients that a strong message that stands on its own merits, coupled with thoughtful persuasion, will help them reach their goals. I would never advise bullying tactics. The unvaccinated deserve to be persuaded — not attacked, vilified, or virtually spat on.
Insults, such as Biden’s recent dig at unvaccinated Americans (“You’re not as smart as I thought you were”), don’t work. Similarly unhelpful are pronouncements from on high that cannot be challenged. Fauci going on MSNBC and saying that 100 million people not getting the vaccine is “the problem” will not help move a single person toward getting the shot.
To respond in good faith to the honest questions held by many about the vaccines, some of the “quiet professionals” working behind the scenes (not media darlings) should hold a press conference, similar to those that took place early in the pandemic. They should explain their work on clinical trials that are taking place, detail what has been learned, and take hard questions from the press. Information on what the vaccine means for children, fertility, those who have had COVID and have antibodies, and those with autoimmune diseases must be addressed. Anyone who works in communications knows that if you treat people with respect and listen to their concerns, you’re much more likely to get your message across.
Officials Creating Confusion, Spreading Blame
Now that mask mandates are back, familiar patterns are starting to emerge once again: confusing guidance from our public health officials, waffling from our political leaders, and, of course, the constant presence of Fauci — now “chief medical adviser” to the president — on our TV screens.
More than two-thirds of Americans are vaccinated now, but the delta variant of the virus currently circulating seems to be able to infect even vaccinated people, and it’s these “breakthrough” cases that prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to shift back to mask requirements.
“Even if you are vaccinated,” Fauci declared, “you need to wear a mask in indoor public settings in the areas that have a high degree of transmissibility.”
For the slightly less than a third of Americans who haven’t gotten the shot, the world has changed. Politicians, the media, and many in the toxic terrain of Twitter and Facebook blame us for the rise of the delta variant and the increased risk of contracting the virus. Fauci, it should come as no surprise, is leading this charge, telling MSNBC’s Chris Hayes (of course): “Right now we have 100 million people in the United States who are eligible, who are not getting vaccinated. That’s the problem.”
Fauci’s History of Flawed Guidance
Actually, the problem is Fauci himself. This is the same unimpeachable expert who told Americans “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask” in March of 2020, and who, a month before, told an acquaintance that most masks were “not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through material.” Around the same time, his public health colleague, then-Surgeon General Jerome Adams, tweeted frantically that Americans should “stop buying masks.”
By now these inconsistencies in guidance over the course of the pandemic are well-known — the “noble lies” the American people were told, supposedly for their own good. It was Fauci, remember, who first told us we needed to vaccinate 70 percent of Americans to achieve herd immunity, but then bumped the number up to 85 percent based on public polling. Were we supposed to “trust the science,” as we are so often told, or just accept Fauci’s “guesstimate” (as he called it at the time)? He’s changed his story on the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis too, dismissing those who put forward that theory with a curt “I don’t get what they’re talking about” in May 2020, only to tell the Wall Street Journal a year later that “we never ruled out the possibility.”
On top of all this, last summer millions of people took to the streets in tightly packed groups to protest the death of George Floyd, throwing the caution of the lockdown phase out the window, and yet public health experts scrambled to explain why that was now, somehow, allowed. Meanwhile, on our southern border, police in Texas have discovered migrants who were apparently released into this country by the Border Patrol despite testing positive for COVID-19. Protesters and illegal immigrants — both favored constituencies of the left — seem to have gotten a pass on these stringent health regulations.
With inconsistent guidance and inconsistent application of that guidance by health professionals, is it really so hard to wonder why some Americans are questioning whether they can trust what they are being told about the vaccine?
Just a reminder: These vaccines are still only labeled for emergency use and not fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration. There is still concern about the effects on women who are pregnant or want to get pregnant, and little information on the effects on people who have had COVID, those with autoimmune diseases, and children.
But here we are. It’s August 2021, Fauci is still the face of this pandemic, and the fatigue is real.
It’s time for a new face of the public health response to the pandemic. Or, better yet, no single “face” at all, just honest experts who aren’t out for fame but simply present their facts fairly and simply. Elevating Fauci to celebrity status, a development he seems to have thoroughly enjoyed, has actually decreased his trustworthiness in the eyes of many Americans. If he truly wants more Americans to get vaccinated, rather than more television appearances, media profiles, and other accolades for himself, he should recognize that and step aside to let others make the case.