hands preparing a syringe with covid vaccine

Messaging Is Important: Undersell & Overdeliver

Messaging is important if you want people to take a specific action. And the accuracy of the message is crucial if you want to inspire confident action. This should be obvious to anyone. A clear message is unambiguous in declaring the action desired. It should also create accurate expectations. 

In general, because messaging is so important, it is advisable to choose words carefully. When a message is broadcast for widespread distribution and consumption, the common usage and meaning of words is universally assumed. If a non-standard definition is meant, it should be stated, or another word or phrase should be substituted. In such cases it is best to say exactly what is meant and then to mean exactly what is said. It is always better to under promise and over deliver. 

As stated above, messaging is important to influence people to action. The words, terms, and phrases used are the tools of persuasion. Words mean things. Common words are expected to  convey their standard, common, unambiguous connotations. Consider the following two messages:

  1. Every member of the public should get vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus as soon as they can find an available appointment slot. Every adult is encouraged to get vaccinated to be protected themselves and to protect all other members of society. The vaccinations that have been developed have been proven to be effective against serious infection or death from the virus in those who have received
  2. “Every member of the public should get a shot, or series of shots, to help protect against the worst effects of COVID-19. The shots being offered are proven to be effective in reducing both serious illness (requiring hospitalization), and death, in both clinical trials and thus far in the roll out. Every member of the public should avail themselves of this protection

The expected duration of protection against the virus, after shots are received, is not known at this time. It is also not known whether an additional booster shot may be required to maintain protection in approximately 12 months. Also, it is not know whether the shots confer 100% absolute immunity against COVID-19, and all it’s rapidly mutating variants. Or, if it does, what segment of the public would have that level of immunity. 

Thus far, there have been approximately 5800 reported cases of individuals who have completed the 2-shot regimen who have nonetheless contracted COVID-19. Notwithstanding these unfortunate realities, these shots are phenomenally effective against serious, life-threatening infection from COVID-19, and all members of the public are strongly advised and encouraged to avail themselves of this protection. Further treatments will be made available as more data is gathered. 

It is to be hoped that a vaccine conferring life-long immunity against every form of Coronavirus will be developed. In this eventuality, all members of the public will be asked to become inoculated with such a vaccine.”

Granted, the second message isn’t as strong as the first. It is much longer. It does not use the word vaccine to describe the shots. But it may be much more accurate in terms of establishing the correct level of expectations, and therefore public confidence. It’s possible that the equivocation about calling the shots a vaccine would keep some members of the public, on the fence about getting the shots, from doing so. On the other hand, a more honest message about what is not known, and whether this treatment behaves as a traditional vaccine, with the traditionally anticipated results, would at least give those who decide on the shots substantially more accurate expectations, and more informed consent. 

The image of gloved hands preparing a syringe of covid vaccine - the accuracy of the messaging is important if this isn't actually a vaccine
Here’s hoping these shots acts as much like traditional vaccines as possible – What is does is more important than what we call it

I grew up believing that a vaccine meant immunity for a lifetime. What we are being offered does not seem to be that. If that is indeed the truth, it is unfortunate both from a practical, medical-treatment standpoint. But perhaps even more so from a messaging standpoint. Which is not to say that I won’t get the shots when I’m able. I’ll just do so with my own labeling.

Too many people are already skeptical about what is being called a Vaccine Rollout. If in fact, these shots are not technically vaccines, what are they? I’m not suggesting they are not a powerful tool in the repertoire to combat this pandemic, but if they do not confer life-time immunity, or if they do not confer a significantly lengthy immunity of years duration, they can hardly be termed vaccines, in the traditional usage of that word. Or is that semantics, only?

If they don’t, calling the shots a vaccine is not a good message. I’m not saying it is not a great treatment! I’m not saying that it should be avoided because it may have been mis-named. It’s just not good if in fact, these shots have been mis-named. And that’s too bad for all of us. Messaging is important. The accuracy of the message is crucial if you want to inspire confident action. And it seems perhaps some underselling could have helped this message to resonate better.

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