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Hospitals’ antidote to vaccine reputation risks

You've been going non-stop supporting the system with life-saving communication, pivoting daily, and keeping everyone informed of the latest information. And just when it felt like there would be some hope with the vaccine rollout, it proved to be yet another challenge.

Hospitals – once heroes celebrated from the rooftops every night – became the scapegoats in a flawed vaccine rollout, finding themselves at the mercy of national and state plans and a little-to-no notice of upcoming changes. Nationally, we've made progress through Biden's COVID-19 Task Force, yet hospitals continue to face reputational damage and community frustration. 

This lack of support has health systems across the country wondering if hospitals would be better suited to act as vaccine educators than distributors. Most health systems, however, continue to distribute vaccines with no indication of stepping off the throttle. If your health system falls in this category, avoid undue hospital reputation risks with these recommendations and best practices. 

Managing your hospital's reputation amidst vaccine distribution 

While each state distributes vaccines differently, systems across the nation can follow these communications best practices to manage their hospital's reputation during vaccine rollout effectively.

Align Operations and Communications

The pandemic has proven what most Marcom professionals have long known: operations and communications must work in-tandem. The pandemic has given communicators a seat at the table to inform operations – a practice our industry must adhere to. By aligning the two, hospitals can ensure that their promises are fulfilled and avoid backlash. 

Application: If the Marcom team is pushing your communities to "sign up to get a vaccine," but operationally, the system doesn't have vaccines to give, you put your health system at risk of not delivering on a perceived promise.

Transparency will serve your hospital's reputation well 

Clear, direct communication with internal and external stakeholders will deliver the best results. This means communicating transparently and proactively about the things you know and things you don't know.

Application: You likely know where people will be able to get a vaccine, but you may not know how many doses of a vaccine you'll have over the next few weeks. If this is the case, clearly articulate your supply limitations, give people the necessary details about vaccination sites, and what they need to know when they get their vaccine.

Be the trusted source of vaccine information

Nearly all health systems pivoted their external communications to operate as public health hubs. Vaccine misinformation has run rampant – safety, efficacy, protocol, side effects, and so much more. Systems that provide easy-to-understand information delivered by trusted experts set themselves apart in the eyes of the public.

Application: Provide information on your website in simple language. Using visuals to explain complicated information like the science behind the vaccine or the approval process helps people understand complex topics. It’s also important to make sure your internal teams – especially those on the front lines and administrative staff – are equipped with information to answer patient questions and know where to send them to get more information.

Help ensure equitable access to the vaccine: More Black Americans, Hispanics, and other people of color suffer from COVID-19 and continue to lag in getting the vaccine. With the authorization of Johnson & Johnson, distribution within communities will be easier, creating hope that vaccination rates will rise. If we want to increase vaccination uptake in these untapped communities, we must help resistant populations to overcome fear and skepticism. 

Application: Some systems are focusing most of their efforts toward authentically reaching these communities. Our clients report increased willingness to vaccinate when they rely on existing community outreach teams, non-profits, and community organizations to share information. 

Vaccine distribution pitfalls to avoid 

In addition to the actions health systems should take, there are some pitfalls to avoid that can cause serious harm to your reputation.

Letting people jump the line 

Giving vaccines out of order has been one of the most common pitfalls across the country. With so many people clamoring for the vaccine, we've seen everything covered in the media from hospital foundations using access to the vaccine as a way to solicit donations to family members of health system employees jumping ahead of state guidelines. Even when systems haven't broken any rules, perception of special treatment has been harmful thus far, resulting in diminishing public trust.

Not working together with other partners

Health systems are being asked to do so much right now. You continue to fight the pandemic, treat other patients coming in for routine and preventive care, provide acute care, and now lead the vaccine rollout. Trying to do it all along without partners will not work. Now is the time to look to others who can play a collective role in returning to some semblance of normalcy as soon as possible.

We continue to be awed by the dedication, commitment, and thoughtfulness with which health system marketing and communication professionals show up each day. As the vaccine rollout becomes more reliable and supplies increase, we hope hospitals like yours will receive the praise and appreciation you deserve for helping lift up your communities.

March 9, 2021
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