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  • Michaela Drewe

How Hostage Negotiation and Salesmen Can Help Vaccinate Australia

Updated: Jul 4, 2022

Humans are a fickle bunch. We don’t like to be told what to do. A whiff of authoritarianism sparks thoughts of rebellion or cries of disagreement (even if deep down we do agree). But we also crave leadership, demand direction and are wired to seek community inclusion.

It’s a complex double-edged sword, and one that’s shining as bright as ever as the Australian Government continues to grapple with enticing vaccination take-up amongst the masses. The Three Musketeers had it right: ‘All for one and one for all’. So why is the message struggling to resonate?

Dr Norman Swan recently came together with three experts in their respective fields on the webinar ‘What Covid Has Revealed About the Real Australia’ to discuss this very conundrum. Dr Julie Leask suggested that hesitancy is normal when people are introduced to something new. And the vaccine, no matter the brand you’ll be eligible for, is just that – new.

We as humans are skeptics to our core, but once we get used to something it shifts quickly from radical notion to unabating acceptance. The good old ‘of course we should be doing x or y, how could we have ever thought otherwise?’.

But we’re not there yet. Aside from outright rejectors, many Australians are seemingly struggling to jump on board and embrace our new vaccine ‘ticket out’. And it can be argued that it boils down to one simple answer as to why: there are too many cooks in the kitchen, and they’re all creating their own 3-course dinner.

From local councilors to state leaders to the federal government to even brands shouting ‘we’re with you’ – all are attempting in their own way to say their bit to convince action. And whilst the intentions may be noble, what’s resulting is a communications turf war of unprecedented proportions. The mood of the nation is one of overwhelming confusion. And the easiest reaction when confronted with confusion? Rejection.

We are not alone in this pandemic, yet our vaccine response is distinctly different to many other nations. Despite a rather dramatic false start, there are lessons to be learnt in how the USA has approached vaccination comms. As Simon Friedlander, one of the many brains behind the highly successful campaign ‘Up to You’, described on the webinar: “If we’re told to do something, we won’t do it”. So instead they used a clever crafting of individual rights that leaned into ‘choice’, ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ but in such a way as to not feel like they impinged on these very notions.

The famous B.F. Skinner described similar in his theory of behavioural conditioning: if we want a particular action – whether that be from chickens, dolphins, dogs or people – we must reward for the behaviour we are seeking to encourage more of it, not punish current actions in an attempt to squash it. So, if you want someone to do something – in this case, the willing take up of a vaccine – you must make them believe it was their idea to do so all along.

As retired FBI lead negotiator Chris Voss suggests, gaining the upper hand is all about creating the perception of it. An old rule in the art of negotiation is to “separate the people from the problem”. But as he argues, “how can you separate the people from the problem, when their emotions are the problem?”. So, instead of denying or downplaying very valid feelings many Australians are experiencing right now, good negotiators identify them first to then influence them.

That means talking less and listening more. If you give the impression that you are really listening – that you truly empathise – then what you say next is more likely to be received positively, rather than get outright rejected. It’s the same approach used by car salesmen back in the day – if you can get someone to imagine themselves in that shiny red car vividly enough, you are well on your way to making that suggestion become the reality.

Dale Carnegie understood this clearly: if you empower others to make their own decisions, they will feel empowered to follow through with them.

And so, this is where the US campaign currently trumps our own approach. Where they started with centralising answers to common questions quickly evolved into creating confidence through influence – working with leaders to talk to the public on their own level. Whether it be Barack Obama or local parish leaders, the message was always the same: their personal take on ‘why’ they got vaccinated that would go on to spur others.

Major league sports groups spoke to getting back to cheering on their favourite teams. Sesame Street inspired parents to envisage once again coming together to celebrate kids’ birthdays. Budweiser spoke to long summer nights out bar-hopping with friends once again.

Multiple messages through trusted stakeholders but all with the same notes of optimism and inspiration. Combined with clarity and consistency in delivery, it ultimately created one unified outcome: a desire for normalcy once more.

So, whether you’re an everyday person, the Government required to lead the charge or a brand looking to lean in, the lesson here is simple. If you do choose to add a voice to the mix, then be clear in what you’re saying, be consistent in how you’re saying it and be authentic when you say it.

And remember, as Carnegie famously quipped: “Why, I wonder, don’t we use praise instead of condemnation?”.


Tonic Media Network: She’ll be right? What has the Covid-19 Pandemic shown us about the real Australia? webinar, July 2021; Chris Voss: Never split the difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it; Psychology Today: Unconscious Branding; Dale Carnegie: How to win friends and influence people; Business Insider: The best way to sell an idea is through the unconscious mind.


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