Vaccine Communications: Michigan’s COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Plan

The past year has presented our society with challenges unlike any we’ve faced before, and the same is true professionally for many public relations practitioners. Rolling out a new vaccine for COVID-19, and addressing the concerns of those who may be hesitant to get one, was and continues to be a crucial step forward in our journey to return to a sense of normalcy.

IABC Detroit and PRSA Detroit were fortunate to host a panel with several key members of the State of Michigan’s vaccine rollout plan, including Melanie Brown, deputy chief of staff for Governor Whitmer’s Office; Tiffany Brown, communications director for Governor Whitmer’s Office; and Darice Darling, communications director for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). Here are some of the key takeaways from their discussion about Michigan’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout:

Connecting with Communities of Color

“We knew the vaccine was coming, so we were able to plan for it,” Darice said. “We knew about the racial disparities in healthcare that exist, and the distrust of government that exists within communities of color. We did surveys, focus groups and listened anecdotally, which helped build messaging for our communications.”

Based upon the feedback from their outreach, the team learned that one of the things important to communities of color was hearing testimonials from people of color, Darice explained. Communities of color also emphasized the importance of transparency around the vaccine, including the science, facts and data behind the creation and distribution of the it. By listening to the feedback and implementing what was learned into their strategy, MDHHS has been able to more effectively connect with communities of color and address concerns of vaccine hesitancy.

Another strategic component of the State’s outreach around vaccine communications was the executive order to create the Protect Michigan Commission. The group was created to help raise awareness and educate the public about vaccination, including messaging geared towards those who may be vaccine hesitant, Tiffany explained. Among the strategies employed, Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist and State of Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun proactively engaged influencers, such as Blake Griffin and others, to reach audiences that may be hesitant about vaccinations.

Engaging stakeholders across the state was also an important component of outreach around the vaccine, Melanie added.

“One of things I’m glad we did was connect with our key stakeholders across the state. Not just elected officials and doctors, but also people of color and underrepresented communities across Michigan, from major cities to small rural communities,” Melanie said. “We took the time to reach out directly and through our networks to not only come up with communications materials, but also identify avenues to make sure we were communicating with key members of all communities.”

While it may seem to many that COVID hit our state like a tidal wave in mid-March of 2020, the State government had been anticipating its arrival and was as prepared as possible when the first cases arrived. Emergency operations centers were set up in late February, weeks before COVID’s arrival, which greatly benefitted the State’s response, Melanie explained. In many instances, the State of Michigan was ahead of the curve in terms of its response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and worked hard to stay ahead of what was expected to come.

Managing the Integrity of Communications

Working in close partnership with federal agencies and State departments was an incredibly important part of maintaining the integrity of communications, Melanie said. Staying in close contact with leadership from each of Michigan’s 83 counties was imperative. From a messaging standpoint, all communications must make sense within the current environment, which can evolve significantly and rapidly. One example the panel mentioned was the recent pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine over clotting concerns. This was one of many instances where the communications teams from the State had to respond quickly and make necessary changes to their messaging on the fly.

Another important part of the State’s vaccine communications has been relationships with the media. Having strong relationships with media outlets provides multiple channels to get press conferences out across the State. Similarly, blocking off time on the Governor’s calendar for follow up interviews has been important, as it allows for media outlets from throughout the state to get answers to their questions, which may contain crucial information for Michiganders who live in the media outlet’s coverage area.

As with many parts of the pandemic, developments that come up are often outside of the State’s control. With this in mind, frequent and consistent communications play an important role in maintaining integrity.

“At one point, we were doing press conferences up to three days per week to share the most up-to-date information,” Tiffany said. “Hundreds of interviews – dozens a week. We had to have clear messaging, clear goals, tune out the noise and stay focused. There were dozens of times we needed to just follow the science and the data, that was the path forward.”

Going Forward from the Pandemic

While we all hope to one day get back to a sense of pre-pandemic normalcy, some things that have arisen from the pandemic are likely to stay long term, the panelists said.

“I think doing things in a virtual manner is here to stay,” Tiffany said. “We’ve all had to learn to utilize virtual press conferences and meetings, which I think will be around for a long time to come.”

Another element of the State’s efforts that will continue to be carried forward is education, Darice added. Educating people on where they can get their shots and providing education to address concerns of vaccine hesitancy will continue to be important. Much of the messaging already created is still relevant, Darice said. At this point, it’s really about digging in, continuing to connect with key stakeholders and audiences throughout the state, and staying committed to providing the most accurate, comprehensive information available on the COVID-19 vaccines.

Jeff Adkins is a senior public relations specialist with Henry Ford Health System and a PRSA Detroit board member/programming committee chair.