Approximately 40% of healthcare workers are reticent to take the COVID-19 vaccine. That statistic alone is enough to vex leadership teams. Although certainly there are outliers, many providers in senior living and long-term care in general as well as in hospital systems are struggling ensuring widespread vaccine adoption across frontline employees. That is troubling from a public health perspective, but it is equally troubling from a communication perspective, too. 

In general, communication about the coronavirus pandemic has been lackluster. Unfortunately, as a country, we have lacked a cohesive and consistent narrative about the virus, precautions and vaccines. Most communication has been reactive, rather than proactive. It also has not been easy to wade through the mire of changing regulations and restrictions, ever-shifting best practices and pervasive misinformation. The reality is, if we cannot figure out the best ways to communicate, then vaccine adoption will continue to lag, plaguing healthcare workers and the broader public.

A recent Vox article recognized this plight but also noted that there is a glimmer of hope. Many healthcare workers who were polled are not saying they never will receive a vaccine; they’re just saying that they won’t right now. That reaction mirrors one held by the greater public in many ways. Healthcare workers, after all, represent a truly diverse microcosm that reflects the broader population.

Operationally, this issue presents a logistical challenge, because those who passed on the initial opportunity may not be able to receive the vaccine quickly, due to supply and demand. Likewise, as doses are allocated, lower adoption rates inadvertently could limit the number of vaccines that are distributed to any given state, county, facility, etc.  

Some senior living organizations already have adopted the stance that the COVID-19 vaccine is mandatory, whereas others are encouraging employees to get vaccinated with monetary incentives and bonuses. This also is a hot topic in sales and marketing, as some providers dangle COVID-19 vaccines in marketing campaigns to lure move-ins.

Employees are looking to their employers for credible and trustworthy information. If organizational trust is high, then communication and vaccine adoption become that much easier. If organizational trust is low, then skeptical employees will dismiss communication efforts, and misinformation will be easily propagated and spread.

We also need to understand that people have differing factors for how they view vaccination and that our own experiences, world views and sometimes even where we live, inform our responses. That means that although there is an overarching narrative reinforced across communication channels, you likely will need to create nuanced versions of that message to cater to different schools of thought.

Here are five communication tips to consider as you continue to encourage vaccine adoption:

1. Timely and transparent

Your initial wave of communication made its rounds and, hopefully, was timely, provided simple and relevant information, and also made it easy for employees to sign up and receive the vaccine. If the first rollout is not going smoothly, or there were problems with the process or other glitches, that can negatively affect adoption rates.

Continue to communicate consistently and in a timely fashion; communicate any new improvements or changes to the process that may encourage others to join in. If the rollout was less than stellar, then acknowledge that, and show what has been done to address it.

2. Address concerns head on

Speaking of addressing things, it is never too late to address employees’ concerns. Of course, ideally, that is done at the outset of your communication strategy, but a pulse on why team members have reservations can be extremely helpful in your communication efforts.

Do not try to bury the potential side effects, or the harsh realities, but simultaneously do not make those your dominant message. Scientists and the medical community have perhaps taken this idea to heart too much, in that often their communication leads with all the negative possibilities and what-ifs, no matter how statistically small the risk is.

The goal is to offer ample information so individuals can make educated and informed decisions. Addressing employees’ concerns means acknowledging these challenges in a truthful and meaningful way while answering questions employees may be too afraid to share. These acts speak to transparency and help engender trust.

3. Provide creative mediums for consumption

Perhaps your community already has provided numerous communications. As with any campaign tactics, those with strong visual branding and appeal are more engaging.

You likely know that social media posts have higher engagement when there are photos or videos. A similar truth applies to ongoing communication efforts. Is it visually appealing? Is it memorable? Is it easy to understand and disseminate?

Leveraging creative storytelling tactics supported by infographics, videos, animations and more can increase adoption. What does that look like? Perhaps it is a series of in-house videos that feature interviews from those who already have been vaccinated sharing why they chose to get vaccinated. Or it is an animated series that presents a compelling case for vaccination.

Another medium even may be the nature of the vaccination clinics/events themselves, with custom branded swag given to the early adopters and other ways to celebrate those decisions.

4. Leverage leaders and peers as examples

Every organization has influential individuals — sometimes, they are people in official leadership capacities (such as executives), and other times they are people who are natural leaders in the ranks without the title.

If you recognize who those individuals are and involve them as brand ambassadors in your vaccination campaign, then they will serve as encouraging examples for other employees. Those ambassadors can share their own personal experiences and decision-making processes that convinced them to get the vaccine, which in turn will influence others. Promote those successes on the company’s website and social media channels, and encourage employees to share on their personal social media, too. Doing so helps amplify your reach to other reticent employees and to the broader public as well.

5. Seek feedback, retool as needed

Seeking feedback is crucial to tweaking and retooling communication efforts. Have employees been polled or surveyed about their vaccination experience and side effects? Have employees been asked via survey whether they want to be vaccinated and why/why not? Is there confusion about the process within some segment of the organization?

Through some of these questions, you may find that most employees did not experience side effects, which would be noteworthy to communicate. Similarly, if there is a theme among the concerns that employees provide, then you can implement responses to those specific concerns immediately.

If you actively seek feedback and keep your ears to the ground, then the insights you learn can help enhance your communication efforts as you continue to move forward. It is never too late to adjust so that you can achieve the best possible outcomes.

Courtney Malengo is the founder of Spark + Buzz Communications, a strategic communications consultancy that helps brands tell their story to inspire audiences and galvanize growth. She has 18 years of experience leading branding, marketing, public relations and communications initiatives, 10 of which were spent in senior living. Courtney is an accredited public relations professional with a master’s in communication and organizational leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA. She is passionate about providing creative and strategic solutions to bolster brands, enhance reputation, boost sales, cultivate culture, increase employee engagement, and build market differentiation.