An advocate is someone who “publicly supports something.” Our leaders have attempted to advocate for the COVID vaccine. Unfortunately, they’ve failed. Our World in Data recently reported that only 61.94 percent of Americans are at least partially vaccinated. We are in last place for vaccinations in the wealthy Group of 7 nations. In Pennsylvania, the numbers are a little higher and 70% of us have received at least one dose. Our leaders have failed to advocate for the vaccine effectively, and it may be too late to recover.
I’ve been advocating as a trial attorney in Pennsylvania courtrooms for over 20 years. Now I give leaders the tools to advocate for their businesses, their teams, and themselves with the tools of a trial attorney. Leaders must hone the skill of advocacy. Because if “facts tell and stories sell” — advocates win. Vaccines need an advocate.
Storytelling is important and leaders do need to be able to tell stories in order to engage the people they lead. But when there are two competing stories (and there are almost always two competing stories), the advocate wins.
Leaders had a story they’ve tried to sell to the American people so they’d get the vaccine. The vaccine would save your life and your health. It would prevent you from having to wear a mask and it would allow our children to return to school. But there were competing stories from those who were less sure about the vaccine. They told the story of vaccine side effects, questionable efficacy, and mandatory masks whether you were vaccinated or not. Which story wins?
The story that wins is always the one with the better advocate. In my work I’ve developed the 5 core competencies of an advocate. They are choice, compassion, creativity, curiosity and credibility. Any of the 5 would help our leaders advocate for the vaccine more effectively. But the area where they’ve really faltered is credibility — and a loss of credibility is a death knell for an advocate.
“If they don’t believe you, you can’t win.” This was my mantra in the courtroom and the most important advice I share with my leaders. An advocate can be smart, compassionate, creative, and curious. They can tell a phenomenal story. But if your jury (here, the American people) doesn’t believe you, you simply can’t win.
Credibility is built by making promises and keeping them, and by setting expectations and meeting them. That’s difficult when the science is changing every day. Less than two months ago Biden suggested that those who lived in states with high vaccination rates did not have to wear masks. That recommendation has changed. Less than one month ago, the administration suggested that all Americans should and would get a booster to their vaccination. That, too, has changed The circumstances surrounding the booster recommendation and abrupt change of position are especially harmful to the administration’s credibility.
It’s not easy to advocate for a new vaccine when science is always changing and intelligent minds can disagree. Those types of disagreements are inherent in the scientific process, they’re not going away. But it is possible to build credibility even in these unusual and difficult circumstances. You do it by owning it.
Own it when you can’t keep a promise or meet an expectation. This can be challenging, especially for leaders. Owning it means saying “we were wrong”. Even harder, it means saying “we don’t know”. But saying “we don’t know” is often the fastest way to build credibility. It shows humility and cultivates trust. When you say “we don’t know”, people believe you. And when they believe you, you can win.
Owning it is even harder for political leaders, because the other side is waiting to pounce on every weakness. But 20 years of trying cases in the courtroom, where I’ve also faced adversaries waiting to pounce on every weakness, has taught me that the benefit of owning it is worth the risk. The benefit is winning.
It’s time for our leaders to own it when they can’t keep a promise or meet an expectation. When science changes, tell us so. When intelligent minds disagree, tell us that as well. We can take it, and we’re smarter than they might think. An advocate never wants to underestimate her jury.
The COVID vaccine needs an advocate. It needs someone to make and influence choices with compassion, creativity and curiosity. But most of all, it needs someone who is credible. Because if the vaccine doesn’t win, we all lose.