Choose Healthy Life

Increasing COVID-19 Testing and Vaccinations in Black Communities Through Culturally Fluent Messaging


  • Precise gauging of messaging needs in simultaneous, geographically dispersed communities resulting in overall behavioral change at scale.
  • Messaging design on a complex topic that raises strong negative emotions (fear, suspicion, anxiety) within target audiences .
  • Masterful execution of robust, time sensitive communications planning amongst a variety of partner stakeholders across 14 states.

Choose Healthy Life (CHL) is a nationwide effort to address COVID-19 and other health disparities through the Black church

The Wakeman Agency was retained to lead a strategic communications campaign to increase COVID-19 testing and vaccinations in 14 states for local community residents. This coordinated effort among 120 Black churches in Illinois, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana, California, Louisiana, Delaware, Alabama, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., Michigan, New Jersey, and New York required a multi-tiered strategy. The execution plan had to adopt social norms in the respective cities, while also operating with a sense of urgency focused on driving people to vaccination sites led by the churches.

  • With deep distrust of the medical community, Black people were among the lowest and slowest demographic to get the COVID-19 vaccination.
  • Our work with Choose Healthy Life centered on providing local residents in close proximity to the church location with information and resources to make informed decisions about the vaccine.
  • Our efforts included a coordinated effort of messaging, media relations, influencer engagement, and paid media advertisements.
  • This high-stakes engagement required The Wakeman Agency to develop a campaign that relied on messaging and trusted influencers unique to each of the communities, while creating an urgent call-to-action for audiences.
  • The Wakeman Agency  kicked off efforts by working to understand local sentiments within the targeted communities and underlying reasons for vaccine hesitancy.
  • Successful engagement with stakeholders required that we develop different messaging for each geographic area. For example, we knew that an urban city such as Los Angeles would require unique messaging and different messengers than a more remote area such as rural Georgia.
  • Our learnings helped to shape our messaging and the ability to develop culturally competent talking points that spoke to individual communities. Through a series of focus groups and interviews, we were able to understand concerns and fears within each community.
  • Leveraging information from the CDC, medical professionals, church representatives, and trusted community influencers, we were able to use qualitative and quantitative data to inform our thinking about how to build trust through communications.
  • Understanding that lives hung in the balance as the pandemic ravaged Black communities, it was critical to test messaging and make any refinements to ensure responsiveness.
  • In addition, we were able to collect real-time data from the participating churches to synthesize anecdotal information about local residents who came to testing and vaccine sites. This allowed us to continually adapt messaging and other communications practices to strengthen our efforts.

This campaign required dynamic messaging that was continually refined as more information became available from the CDC and the medical community. One of the challenges in this campaign was to align messaging that was authentic to the churches with people in their respective communities that did not have relationships with the actual churches. This required us to find commonalities and shared reference points within the Black community. Using a mix of colloquialisms and cultural references, The Wakeman Agency was able to create a drumbeat of messaging that drove traffic to local vaccine sites.

Outcomes for Choose Healthy Life received  national attention, as the media learned of the impact of the initiative and the role of the Black church in these communities. Choose Healthy Life engaged more than 22.9M people in the targeted communities with a total of 32,421 tested at 967 testing events, and approximately 64,362 vaccinated at 1,185 COVID-19 vaccination events. All stakeholders agreed that the effort was a huge success.

While the main goal for this engagement was to save lives, there was also interest in reaffirming the role that the Black church plays in communities as a trusted influencer and support structure. Highlighting the efforts of the churches offered a prime opportunity to amplify their efforts, not only related to the pandemic, but also their consistent responsiveness to a myriad of societal issues that have disproportionately impacted Black communities.

The messaging developed was used in Public Service Announcements on local radio programs, in media interviews, social media posts, paid social media ads, and print advertising. The Wakeman Agency also developed communications toolkits for the churches. The toolkits included messaging and talking points to support community outreach and media interview opportunities. We developed messaging to be used by a group of medical influencers that we identified and retained to share information on social media. This consistency in messaging across a myriad of communications channels was an effective strategy for combating vaccine hesitancy.

During the period of engagement, social media platforms such as TikTok and Meta implemented a series of changes to their advertising criteria related to any COVID-19 social media ads as a way to control widespread misinformation. As changes were being made in real time, there were instances where effective tactics that were underway were no longer viable, requiring us to pivot and develop new strategies quickly. We relied heavily on Meta’s audience targeting for the initial phases of our social media advertising. The ability to use demographic and geographic criteria allowed us to reach Black residents in the desired communities across the 14 states. When Meta no longer offered the demographic targeting triggers that we had become reliant on to reach audiences, we had to shift to geographic targeting. While this change reduced our ability to directly reach only Black audiences, we were able to maintain similar views and click-through rates by ensuring that the imagery and language in the ads spoke to this demographic.

This campaign highlights The Wakeman Agency’s ability to develop strategic communications assets that influence behaviors. During a time of uncertainty and a rapidly changing global crisis, we  developed and deployed a campaign that created an emotional connection with audiences, and opened up a dialogue that encouraged them to get information to make informed decisions.

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