During the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare system has undergone a seismic shift, resulting in massive PR disasters but also tremendous successes. However, the record-breaking rollout of effective vaccines has been tempered by corporate blunders and a lack of transparency on COVID-19 infection rates. What can communicators learn from the mistakes and successes of the past year?

The Biden administration enjoyed one of the biggest successes of the pandemic by meeting its aggressive vaccination goals (200 million shots administered by April 29, his 100th day in office) by moving the vaccine eligibility date for all U.S. adults to April 19. Others have not fared as well in their communications. For example, AstraZeneca, which collaborated with Oxford University to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine in just 90 days, a feat that would have been lauded as tremendous if not for a series of alleged missteps during vaccine trials and alleged exclusion of critical information from public communications. As a result, that vaccine is not in circulation in the U.S., and the crisis has dogged the organization’s reputation.

One major takeaway from this is that moving at breakneck speed to address health crises like COVID-19 does not waive the need for accurate, up-to-date information. In fact, it puts even more pressure on communicators to stand up to the highest levels of scrutiny and to fulfill our promises to inform the public on rapidly changing health information. Some entities have done this extremely well despite the pressures of the highest stakes healthcare crisis in our lifetime.

Another example: the pause of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which set off another public PR firestorm, drawing concern from the public and millions who had already received the vaccine. Citing concerns over rare blood clots that impacted only six individuals out of the roughly 6.8 million that had already been administered the COVID-19 vaccine, the federal government sparked fear in the greater U.S. population.

Clear and unified public health communications from the onset of the pandemic would have helped better communicate the scale of the healthcare crisis while reinforcing the need to get vaccinated with the public. According to a recent study released by Pew Research Center, 69% of Americans plan on getting the COVID-19 vaccine, while 19% have already received at least one dose. Confidence in receiving the vaccine has increased steadily from 50% in September 2020 and 60% in November 2020. However, that still leaves 31% (nearly a third of Americans) unvaccinated and skeptical of public health efforts. Effective communications can help convey the value of vaccines and rebuild public trust in the scientific process.

As healthcare organizations continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and innovate the patient experience through technological advancements, here are the key steps that should be taken to ensure accurate, effective communications:

  • Be Accurate, Early and Often: Today, the delivery of accurate medical-grade information is imperative to ending the global pandemic. Don’t share information that isn’t sourced from leading national or state bodies. Ensure that what is being shared is accurate and up to date. Keep your spokesperson bench updated with the latest information. Date all talking points to crosscheck accuracy.
  • Use Trusted Medical Professionals as Your Spokespeople: Credibility is more critical than ever. When communicating on fast-moving health challenges like COVID-19, use a spokesperson with the right chops and credentials.
  • Communicate in Your Audience’s Language: Trying to communicate the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines to a key stakeholder community that doesn’t speak English as its first language? Use a translator to interpret key messages.
  • Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment with Forum: Our virtual environment has empowered brands to try new and innovative strategies for communication, from Clubhouse to virtual “Town Hall” style events. Interested in pursuing something new? Get in touch with us.

Following these guidelines will strengthen all your communications during this critical period and help your organization avoid crises. Moving forward, it remains unclear how long COVID-19 will be part of our lives and how we will respond to future public health crises, making high-level critical communications essential for the long-term.


RH Strategic is a Seattle and D.C.-based communications firm with a nationwide presence and additional global reach via membership in the Worldcom Public Relations Group. We provide strategic public relations for innovators in the technology, government and healthcare markets.