KEEP IN MIND
The goal of choosing the right words is to help nudge people from “wary” or “open, but uncertain” to “intend to get vaccinated.” The suggestions here come from a deep body of research in psychology and communications. They also come from experimentally tested messages specifically about the Covid-19 vaccines. They aim to help you avoid messaging that might seem persuasive such as appealing to risk, guilt or fear, or hitting people hard with lots of facts. Such messaging actually runs the risk of pushing people further into vaccine hesitancy.
You may encounter a few people with very strong negative views about vaccines. Even the most wisely chosen words may not persuade them, and that shouldn’t be your goal. Keep your focus on people willing to engage in dialogue. And as in any form of crisis communication, keep repeating your well-chosen words over and over again. Keep the lines of communication open, too.
Focus on warmth and empathy.
Try to foster a welcoming, personal and authentic dialogue rather than a debate. Say “Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me,” or “I appreciate the questions you’re asking.”
Don’t assume high levels of general health literacy.
Many Americans are not familiar with how the immune system functions. Be sure to include clear explanations of how vaccines work. Even high-level explanations help, like “A vaccine will train your body to fight Covid-19 so you won’t get sick if you come into contact with it later.”
Recommendations to encourage vaccination
Tools and Materials
Highlight the science, but avoid jargon.
Most of the time, plain language will be more effective and clearer. Say “The vaccine and boosters will give you protection against the coronavirus.” Use the word "protection" instead of "immunity" or "antibodies."
Give clear, brief reassurance about safety if asked.
Don’t make people take your word on safety, but don’t overwhelm them with data. Say, “Scientists were able to develop vaccines quickly because they already had years of research to build on. The FDA made sure no corners were cut in the safety testing. Over one billion people around the world have now been safely vaccinated.
Respect people’s agency.
No one likes to feel controlled or powerless. People want to be informed and not indoctrinated. Be sure to emphasize the role of personal choice in the vaccination process, even if there are consequences involved. Say “ultimately the choice is yours to make.” If you are implementing a mandate, however, be specific and clear about the timing and implications if they choose not to get vaccinated.
Never use the words “anti-vax” or “anti-vaxxer.”
Far more people belong to the “moveable middle” than hold extreme opposition to vaccines. Even people who openly identify as being opposed don’t like the term “anti-vaxxer.” Say “people who have concerns about vaccination.”
Don’t underestimate concerns about access.
Remind people that “the vaccine is free and available to everyone. You don’t have to have health insurance or legal immigration status. You do not have to pay anything.” Let people know if transportation help is available in your area.
Don’t overstate the role of the vaccine.
Mask wearing and social distancing may still be required or advised after vaccination in the fight against Covid-19. Try not to say things like “the vaccine is the key” or “vaccine availability will flip the switch.”
Keep it personal – and local.
It’s easier for people to connect with more concrete outcomes in their everyday lives. Say “protecting your loved ones” rather than “protecting our country.” Share your own story with “I” language. Share stories of local people who have had Covid-19 or the vaccine.
Acknowledge racial inequity directly.
Say “Black/Latinx/Native American/Asian and Pacific Islander communities are most at risk from Covid-19 infection. This is because they don’t have equal access to health care and their risk of exposure is higher. That’s why many vaccination efforts focus on these communities. That's also why it’s important to make vaccination easily accessible to everyone.”
Respect concerns; don’t belittle or guilt.
While hesitancy can be frustrating, it’s usually coming from a place of genuine concern. Try to avoid using guilt as a motivator or suggesting that they are opposed to vaccination. For example, phrases like, “You’re putting your family at risk if you don’t get vaccinated” may be seen as coercive and backfire.
Focus on the positive impacts of vaccination, not just the lack of negatives.
Highlight the benefits people will gain from being vaccinated. People respond better to positive framings. For example, say “protecting those we love” rather than “avoiding another lockdown.”
Normalize the idea of vaccination with numbers.
Humans pay attention to what their fellow humans are doing. Let people know that over 78% of American adults have already had one dose of the vaccine. For up-to-date vaccination numbers, check the CDC’s Covid Data Tracker.
The Ad Council’s recommendations are part of a $500 million campaign. This campaign also includes toolkits and media for medical personnel and the general public, particularly Black and Hispanic Americans. The CDC and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have provided scientific guidance. Other collaborators include the Covid Collective Black Coalition Against Covid-19, Color of Change, NAACP, National Alliance for Hispanic Health, National Hispanic Medical Association, National Medical Association, National Urban League, UnidosUS, and the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.