Most resources in this toolkit are designed for communications opportunities where you are proactively sharing information and are the primary messenger. This document offers basic guidance for a distinctly different situation: conversation with a vocal vaccine denier in front of a public audience. (“Vaccine deniers” refers to a small subgroup who have a very negative attitude towards vaccination and are not open to a change of mind no matter the scientific evidence.)
As you plan and prepare to interact with vaccine deniers, here are evidence-based strategies and tactics to keep in mind.
- Know your limits. To communicate effectively in a public setting that includes eloquent vaccine deniers and/or journalists, a health spokesperson needs more than vaccine knowledge and basic communications skills. Do not agree to participate in a planned public discussion if you have not had media training and experience.
- Set your intention strategically. In a public setting, your goal isn’t to convince the vocal opponent that they are wrong. It is to inoculate the audience against the vaccine denier’s misinformation. Put another way: remember that the broader public is your audience, not the vocal vaccine denier.
- It is not just what you say, but also how you say it. Keep calm and demonstrate respect for your opponent as a fellow human being even though you disagree. Don’t come off as if you are on the attack.
- Demonstrate active listening. Show the audience that you are listening to the denier and thinking through their arguments. Respond to topics that are raised rather than reciting prepared points.
- Be clear that you are on the side of children. When the audience senses your emotional intelligence, they give your medical expertise more weight. Use phrases like “our children” and “the children I care for every day.”
- Prepare key messages and keep things simple. See the toolkit resource “Talking Points” to select the main ideas that you want the audience to hear and remember. Avoid complex terminology that could confuse your audience.
- Prepare for the vaccine denial strategies that you will surely encounter. Vocal vaccine deniers rely on a recognizable set of faulty arguments and deceptive persuasive techniques. Check out the World Health Organization’s resource “How to respond to vocal vaccine deniers in public” to learn to recognize and respond to these predictable arguments.
This resource is based on guidance from the World Health Organization’s publication, “How to respond to vocal vaccine deniers in public.”
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