The People vs MMR

By The Drum, Administrator

March 4, 2002 | 5 min read

Marr Associates' press ad for the MMR vaccination.

Sometimes public debate in the UK bears an uncanny resemblance to the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. In recent weeks the desperate attempts by Government officials to persuade us that the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) jab is safe have had the unintended effect of persuading the public that there must be something wrong with it.

The debate over the safety of the MMR vaccination has generated a wave of parental anxiety and captured the over-active imagination of the media.

The whole MMR story is a PR nightmare. First, Tony Blair refused to confirm that his son Leo had been immunised, then there was a measles outbreak in London, followed by the screening of Panorama featuring Dr Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who links MMR and autism. Ian Duncan Smith called on the Government to offer parents the choice of a single vaccine and, finally, Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, admitted on TV that Government was failing to get its message across to parents.

Some leading figures in the advertising and public relations industry believe that it is now virtually impossible to restore public confidence in the MMR jab. "In general, it is always possible to restore public confidence in an issue or a commodity, but I would be wary of messing with parents' feelings," said Jack Irvine, director of Media House International. "The MMR debate is an immensely complex issue, you can't give facile PR solutions."

Ian McAteer, managing director of The Union, believes this problem of public confidence is not unique to MMR . Following MMR, "Government policy and information is going to be a very difficult issue," said McAteer.

David Budge of Budge Associates also thinks the Government has handled the situation badly and he would recommend that the Government fund major independent research into the rise of autism and look for third-party endorsement for the jab. "I'd use nurses, women and mothers to endorse MMR publicly. If they could find a parent of an autistic child who had the MMR jab and still supports the MMR jab it would be a good tactic," suggests Budge.

One such individual, Dr Mike Fitzpatrick, a GP, father to an autistic child and a supporter of the MMR jab, has added a strong dose of reason to the public debate over MMR. But individuals like Fitzpatrick are few and far between and even he argues that the problems exposed over MMR are of the Government's own making. "The Government has done much to promote popular anxieties about health, so contributing to the public sensitivity over an MMR-autism 'link'," said Fitzpatrick.

Last year the Government spent £4m on an ad campaign which included a TV advert with a baby perched on rocks at the edge of the sea. The purpose of the TV advert was not to win the argument for MMR but to direct people towards MMR information packs. Even that short advert seemed to generate hysteria rather than quell it.

Recent reports in the press that the Government was planning another national ad campaign, involving TV, radio and the press, to persuade parents that MMR was safe are denied by the Department of Health.

A spokesman for the DoH said there was little point in the Government getting involved in an MMR campaign because "no-one would believe them". Their current communications strategy, developed with PR consultants Munro & Forster Communications, is to continue to provide information for parents through GPs and other health professionals.

In the early stages of the MMR scare, some Government Ministers used the threat of deaths from measles as a form of persuasion. Christine Tulloch of Faulds believes the days when Government would scare people into taking advice are over. "In our road safety work, we have moved away from the death and disaster approach to adopt campaigns that say this is what you could lose. This change in approach is a product of research, which shows that hard-hitting scary is less effective," says Tulloch.

What PR and ad agencies need to do is help people get some perspective on the minimal risks involved in vaccination. McAteer believes that the only way to combat public anxiety is to use facts. Facts need space and there is an emerging consensus that TV advertising is a blunt instrument.

Jonathan D'Aguilar, creative director at The Bridge recommends press ads to get MMR's message across: "It is often said that people don't read press ads, but in this case people would read them.

"Reasoned argument supported by fact is the best way to deal with cynicism. You can't use images, because it just won't wash," he said.

In the long run there may need to be a major rethink about the way Government handles health issues. Public relations alone cannot hide the fact that Government policy itself has made a significant contribution to public scepticism about medical and scientific experts and that distrust of politicians is a product of its own anti-sleaze campaigns.


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