Recap of SXSW 2021: Part One

Understanding the state of vaccine confidence.

For the 11th year, Real Chemistry brought together leading health care innovators at SXSW to discuss the issues driving us forward. The virtual event was chock-full of robust conversations about important health care topics.

We were proud to present five official sessions, helping people go deep on what’s next in health care and how patient lives have improved as a direct result of breakthrough elements of health technology. We also hosted a two-day virtual Media Lounge that included panels and fireside chats.

Over the next few days, we’ll highlight some of these discussions, with links to where to watch the full sessions on YouTube. We look forward to seeing everyone at SXSW in person next year.

COVID-19 and Vaccine Confidence

The COVID-19 vaccines are our golden ticket back to normal, as Real Chemistry Founder and CEO Jim Weiss wrote earlier this year. Given that news coverage in recent months has been dominated by discussion of the vaccines, it should be no surprise that five of our SXSW panels covered that topic.

Real Chemistry advisor Jane Sarasohn-Kahn and renowned epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm held a wide-ranging conversation about the pandemic, vaccines and lessons to take forward.

Dr. Osterholm, noting other problems the pandemic has exposed or made worse, such as hunger and mental health challenges, said he hoped there would be new investments in public health. “Public health, when it is done well, preventing these kinds of situations, actually has a spillover into so many other parts of our life we don’t think about,” he said.

He noted that the vaccine rollout has had troubles because the federal government did not give states financial resources to distribute the shots. He said it is getting better, but pointed out, “The vaccine isn’t a vaccination until it goes into your arm.”

What a Shot Meant for One Nurse … and for Its Developer

One big star of our SXSW panels was Sandra Lindsay, a registered nurse from Long Island who in December became the first person in the United States to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. On a panel focused on lessons learned, she described what it meant to her: “It represented to me the beginning of the end of a very dark time in our history, that hope is here, preservation of life, abilities for others to get that same feeling.”

Lindsay was on a panel that included Judy Sewards, head of clinical trial experience at Pfizer, a Real Chemistry client, and Dr. Reed Tuckson,  co-founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID, another client. Sewards said Pfizer set high standards for the science and safety of its vaccine and learned the value of transparency during the process. The result? “People are much more aware of the scientific process. We as an industry have figured out where we need to meet people, do a better job of educating others about what it takes to develop a medicine or a vaccine,” she said.

Surveys About Vaccine Confidence Show Rising Support

What we know about vaccine confidence is not just guesswork. A wide variety of public opinion surveys have tracked how people feel about the vaccines and how willing they will be to take them once available.

On a panel with leading health researchers, Ipsos’ Chris Jackson and the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Liz Hamel pointed out the rise in public confidence in the vaccines in recent months. Jackson said polling shows double-digit increases in confidence across the world.

Of those with a “wait and see” approach, many are not really “hesitant,” but they need more information from trusted sources, Hamel said. “Listen to people’s concerns, take them seriously and empathize with them. They come from not only a place of fear but a place of newness,” she added.

Scott McDonald of the Advertising Research Foundation noted that some of the movement reinforces “what we already understand about how opinions change and how advertising really works.” He pointed out that people get their cues from a “norm” that is now influenced on social media by people they never meet.

While confidence in the vaccines has grown, confidence in governments to deal with the crisis has not. “It has slowly eroded over the past year,” Jackson said.

(For the latest in vaccine confidence news, subscribe to Real Chemistry’s free Vaccine Confidence Weekly newsletter here.)

Messaging About the Vaccines

Messaging about the vaccines and what platforms to use to communicate to those who have questions and concerns was a major focus of most of the Real Chemistry SXSW panels.

“A big breakthrough is telling people it’s okay to have questions,” Dr. Tuckson said. He and Lindsay agreed that trying to understand where people are instead of lecturing them is critical. “We need to listen to people, spend time listening and educating them, dispelling myths. Word of mouth remains very powerful,” she said.

Usually, it takes nine months to create an Ad Council campaign, but the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine education initiative took far less, said Catherine Chao, the Ad Council’s vice president for strategy and evaluation. PSAs were out in two weeks after the Ad Council finalized details with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Ad Council (Real Chemistry is an Ad Council partner) is not just developing heart-tugging commercials, but also community-based activities to “get deep into communities” and help people understand what the vaccines will bring, Chao said.

Effective messages come with an empathetic tone, not focused on playing into fears about what the coronavirus might do to someone who is not vaccinated. “Not to say fear isn’t motivating but when leaning on it too heavily, it is not authentic,” she said.

Asked to create his own 30-second script for a pro-vaccine commercial, Dr. Tuckson said it would say: “Dear American households, would you like to get your life back? Kids go back to school? Have a job? Do you want to have Christmas and Thanksgiving with your family? You can’t do it without getting vaccinated. Let’s get our lives back. Today’s the day.”

Frank Washkuch, executive editor of PRWeek, struck a similar tone. “There are many negative messages, but one that really works is, ‘This is how we get back to normal’,” he said.

The Employer Has a Vaccine Confidence Platform

Employers – who can access a toolkit at adcouncil.org – may not want to give ultimatums about vaccines, said Allison Weissbrot, editor-in-chief of Campaign US at Haymarket Media, but “employers have a huge platform and microphone to get employees vaccinated.” They can use other ways to persuade, including helping make appointments or giving people information about the vaccines, she said.

Jim Weiss said Real Chemistry would approach employee vaccination communication just as he would recommend to clients. “We’ll meet everybody where they are, listen to their concerns and have mutual respect,” he said.

Health Innovation at SXSW and Beyond

Boosting vaccine confidence is a path to help get us out of this pandemic, which has taken a terrible toll on so many. But one silver lining of this past year has been a rapid acceleration of innovation in health care. We will continue to share with you the insights gleaned at SXSW Online 2021 from our industry’s top thought leaders. Thank you for showing up and shaping the future with us.


This is part one of a three-part series recapping our health innovation content at SXSW Online 2021. Stay tuned for more!

Aaron Strout
Aaron Strout

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