As Australia’s COVID vaccination program ramps up, there’s currently plenty of debate about whether to insist or mandate that people should get the jab.
Whether they’re members of the public, health workers or corporate types, one of the big challenges for comms professionals right now is working with their exec teams to determine the approach, and how best to communicate it.
It’s not an easy one, because it brings together important issues such as personal health, freedom of choice, the wider public good and organisational health and safety responsibilities.
There’s no doubt that we are in the midst of an ongoing crisis, and that many aspects of life we took for granted as recently as 2019 are now subject to all kinds of restrictions. Not being able to visit relatives in another suburb, or go to a favourite park, would have been unheard of a couple of years ago. The times, as they say, are unprecedented, and there are subsequently no rules or traditional approaches to these matters.
When it comes to vaccinations, the personal nature of this medical procedure is going to be a headache for some companies. One fundamental issue will be what happens when lockdowns lift and people start coming back to the offices, because presumably not every employee of every company will have been vaccinated by then.
An important question for businesses is whether to let employees who have not received both doses back on their premises, and how to explain the decisions companies make.
It’s easy to imagine that some companies will say that mandating full vaccinations before the return to the office is a step too far, and they would rather ‘strongly encourage’ their people to get the jab. But what if they don’t? Are the employees supposed to work at home indefinitely, even as 95 per cent of their colleagues are back? And what happens if an unvaccinated person turns up for work unannounced? What are going to be the health and comms guidelines for that scenario?
On the other hand, companies that have existing laws on their side to insist only fully vaccinated employees are allowed to return may face a backlash from some staff, who believe that such corporate rules are draconian and a bridge too far – that a company has no right to dictate what vaccines an individual should receive. Just because various laws exist doesn’t mean that all employees understand them or know the drivers that guide their principles.
Adding to the complications, how long will a company wait for an employee to get vaccinated? How much pressure can and should be brought to bear on them? And if the employee refuses to get vaccinated, would some businesses start to question the Fair Work Australia regulations that largely prevent them from being fired?
Comms teams are going to be spending a lot of time lining up their cases, because every decision from now on is going to require full justification with plenty of supporting arguments. Advice to employees will need to be well thought out, coherent and robust – with presumably a lot of footnotes to cover the many grey areas for special cases, ambiguous situations and so on.
Internal comms over the coming months will be stepping into the limelight and communicating some major corporate decisions that are directly related to the wellbeing of every employee, and society as a whole.
These comms professionals may well bear the brunt of direct, and perhaps unpleasant, feedback from their colleagues as various internal campaigns are rolled out, and will require a well-rehearsed set of talking points – as will all their managers and senior leaders.
It’s going to be fascinating to watch what happens as the situation unfolds and how different organisations go about one of the more complex employee comms challenges of recent times. And for the relatively few people of working age who don’t get the jab, life is about to get very interesting indeed.