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In this 8-minute interview Dear Pandemic founder and public health scientist Lindsey Leininger discusses how to speak with the vaccine hesitant.

Interview: 8mins 45 seconds Interview: 8mins 45 seconds

In this 8-minute interview Dear Pandemic founder and public health scientist Lindsey Leininger discusses how to speak with the vaccine hesitant.


00:00:26 – 00:00:46

Dear Pandemic is run by a group of female scientists called “Those Nerdy Girls’ – why?

Dr. Lindsey Leininger

Early on, one of the community members on Facebook said, we have so much information overwhelming about COVID, I’m just going to block it all out and do what those nerdy girls at Dear Pandemic say. So he gave us the name. It ended up being a brand and we’ve stuck with the all woman team.

00:00:54 – 00:01:42

Tell us about Dear Pandemic: how is it different to traditional media?

Dr. Lindsey Leininger

I think it’s this credible science with a warm hug. That’s really kind of our calling card. So, we package traditional media, we package science and we translate it and, by the warm hug aspect of it, we try to dial down people’s anxiety instead of ramp it up. And we know that the outrage machine gets clicks, gets readers and kind of causes a feeding frenzy in the news cycle. So we’re the people who help you stay safe and stay sane. That’s our tagline. So we try to turn down the temperature psychologically by being credible scientists, but by really choosing to not be fear mongers.

00:01:50 – 00:02:32

What is it about your approach that you think makes it so successful?

Dr. Lindsey Leininger

You know, the key to crisis communication is saying what you know, saying what you don’t know, saying what you’re doing about it. And I think that helps people cope with the uncertainty, but it also, it’s a deep psychological need that needs to be attended to. And women often fill that role. They’re the ones we know from sociology, they’re the ones who fill the role of health informants in families, disproportionately. So, as our audience grew up and grew past our friends and family, we’re now at one hundred and three thousand folks on Facebook and we have satellite presence on Twitter and LinkedIn and Insta. We are a primarily female community, our community is primarily women.

00:02:40- 00:05:24

What have been your most popular posts? 

Dr. Lindsey Leininger

The four, I would say, categories of most engaging content for our community have been, first, counteracting confusing scientific headlines. Explaining vaccine science. Last week, we had two kind of breaking news items in science and one was Merck announced that it has done a trial for an antiviral pill that looks very promising. This could be a game changer.

Also, scientific controversy. Is the virus origin a bat in a cave in southern China? Or is it from a lab? These types of things. So that, I’d say, is category one.

Category two is practical advice, straight up. I know my kids need a mask, what mask should I get them? So this thing’s like a consumer reports construct, right? Like, we sift through the science and the recommendations for you and we give you a recommendation.

And we learned that these were popular through engagement, just building the ship. But I have learned since there is a lot of empirical science behind this. That one of the key goals of science communication is a construct called self-efficacy, I feel confident I can do a thing about this problem. So, I feel confident sending my kid to school because I know that I have a high quality mask that is not counterfeit. So that gives you this feeling of self-efficacy. So that’s what this practical things I can use bucket. So that’s bucket number two. So we promote viral hygiene like wash your hands, wear a mask, but we also promote information hygiene. How to check your sources, how to debunk the junk, how to talk to a conspiracy theorist in your life who’s sharing scary, untrue stuff on social media. Again, there’s a whole science behind this and we rely a lot on journalism non-profits, actually.

And then last but not least, I would say, is that we have been intentional and proactively pushing out mental health content since day one. One of our earliest contributors, she is a nurse practitioner, Ph.D, behavioural health is her specialty. We have a family physician nerdy girl.

So we have very intentionally attended to this psychological context. How do I deal with my anxiety? How do I deal with my kid’s anxiety? Why does the uncertainty feel so bad, right? We push out a lot of behavioural health content. So those are our four buckets that I think our content falls onto and that’s the most popular. And then I think, like any news, I mean, I wouldn’t call us a news organisation, I would call us a science education organisation, but, anything that’s breaking.

00:05:31 – 00:06:34

How do you engage with people who are hesitant to get vaccinated?

Dr. Lindsey Leininger

Well, I think rule number one in science communication, really communication of any type is trust. So, we build trust by leading with empathy. So common ground is the most solid starting point for a conversation. Like, I care about you, you’re a mum, I’m a mum. We both care a lot about our kids health and we’re trying to be responsible for our kids health. Like, that’s actually really solid common ground. And that’s what wins the day. It’s trusted messengers, right? So who people trust with respect to their information is very different on this corner and this corner. Whether it be a physical corner in town or whether it be a corner of the internet, right? So, I find my biggest task when I talk to someone who is vaccine hesitant, especially a fellow mum, is to get her to the right messenger. If I am not it, I will find someone. That’s really my kind of, that’s my priority.

00:06:42 – 00:07:29

How do you reach people who actively avoid the type of information you are delivering?

Dr. Lindsey Leininger

We work very hard to stay bipartisan. That’s a leading, that’s kind of a leading core value for us. We know that we’re going to disproportionately reach people who are already pro-vaccine. So our mission is to equip and inform those people on being vaccine boosters in their own places and spaces. Because we all have an uncle. We all have a mum. We all have a friend who is hesitant and doesn’t think like us. I have them in my place in space. I have them in my life. So we are trying to equip an army of science communicators. Because all of us, I mean, if you really, in your heart of hearts, look at your life, we all have people who think differently than us on science. Because science is political, science is patterned by other features of our brain.

00:07:35 – 00:08:38

How would you suggest people connect with someone who is strongly anti-vaccine?

Dr. Lindsey Leininger

It depends on who that person is in your life. If it’s a stranger on the internet, it’s probably just best to walk away, right? But if it is truly a loved one, if it’s someone with whom you think you have some influence and they have some influence in your life, right? There’s like mutual kind of skin in the game and good will, then you can have a conversation.

And like I said, you really have to ground yourself in empathy. I empathise with you. You are someone I love, I am someone you love. And this connection, focus on connection more than being correct, right? So, like preserve, the connection is number one. And empathy is really the lead here.

Actually, go and see if you can make the most convincing argument for the other side. Make yourself do that, train your brain to do that. And that I have found in my own personal work and my own personal context, being a very powerful conversation guide. Because if I can’t articulate the best argument on the other side, I’m not centring on empathy, I’m not.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™. 

Dr. Lindsey Leininger is a public health scientist with expertise in data-driven health policy. As part of an all-female team of “Nerdy Girl” scientists, Lindsey led the @DearPandemic science communication campaign.

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