Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of conflicting information has spread about the available vaccines. In Texas as of April 2021, about nine million people have received a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with only six million of the population being fully vaccinated. Through the noise, Fort Bend County’s Health & Human Services has enlisted the help of students from the Valenti School of Communication to raise awareness about vaccination efforts.
On Jan. 15, before the spring semester had even begun, Dr. Jennifer Vardeman, interim director of the Valenti School of Communication who specializes in strategic communication, convened a group of Valenti graduate students and alumni. Together, they undertook the project of creating a public service announcement (PSA) to incentivize Fort Bend County residents to get their vaccine shot.
“The students have been great about chipping in and working during off-time,” says Vardeman. “All of the students have been phenomenal — they have been coming out on early mornings, weekends and bad weather, just trying to make this PSA happen.”
The PSA team originally only included Valenti graduate students, but they soon enlisted the help of the Valenti Production House and Valenti Integrated for various aspects of the project.
Ultimately, the project was broken into three parts: the research and production work, led by the eight graduate students and alumni; the filming and post-production of the PSA, led by media production professor Craig Crowe’s Valenti Production House students; and raising awareness about the PSA, led by strategic communication students in Valenti Integrated.
“We were put in touch with Fort Bend County through the dean of the College of Medicine here at the university,” said Vardeman. “She was really looking for some help, and he knows we do health communication at Valenti.”
Jacqueline Minter, the executive director of Health and Human Services at Fort Bend County and her communication team worked closely with the PSA team to communicate their vision and wishes for the video. Most announcements regarding the vaccine focused on togetherness — messages on how getting the vaccine could reunite friends and family together — but Fort Bend County also wanted to see other concepts being used.
“We looked at several videos about the vaccine to look at the messaging and how they conducted the videos, and then we separated into teams,” said Hailey Bui, a second-year mass communication graduate student. “We ended up with two big themes: One of the videos would be about misconceptions, and the other would be about togetherness.”
Vardeman then enlisted the help of Drs. Wenlin Liu and Yan Huang, assistant professors at Valenti who contributed data from their own communication-based research on COVID-19 to aid in the creation of a script for the PSA.
After Fort Bend County approved the script, the graduate students sought community members and leaders to be part of the PSA. As a result, most of the participants in the PSA are real people, not actors, who were sourced through mutual connections the students had in Fort Bend.
“We have physicians, pastors, a Latino family and a Vietnamese family speaking in their native languages, a frontline worker and the executive director,” said Vardeman. “We really wanted to get community members to represent the diversity that Fort Bend County has in it. We really wanted them to be speaking and showing their support of the vaccine.”
Vardeman also noted that the African-American and Black communities have historically resisted vaccinations due to past mistreatment by government, corporate, and research institutions. Understanding this, the team endeavored to find Black community leaders to participate. This is one example of the importance the team placed on showing diversity in its message of togetherness, working to involve as many demographics as they could in the project.
“I’m an international student from Vietnam, so COVID-19 impacted me a lot. I was working from home, and I also couldn’t visit my family. I did want to work on some COVID-19 vaccine-related topics so we can spread awareness,” said Bui. “I wanted to be involved in more research and study on the vaccine because it resonated with me.”
The graduate students who worked on the PSA also enrolled in Vardeman’s independent study, which will use the two PSA’s — one focused on misconceptions and the other on the aspect of togetherness — to conduct further research on how different messaging affects people’s perceptions on the vaccine.
“We will be doing pilot testing of the PSA right after it’s done. Right now, we’re going through getting the study certified through the Institutional Review Board,” said Vardeman. “Once it’s approved to work on human subjects or participants, we’ll hold focus groups and conduct surveys to see whether they feel motivated to get the vaccine once they see the videos depending on the PSA.”
While the graduate students and Vardeman conduct further research on the messaging, the media production students have been hard at work in other aspects of the project.
Senior media production student Charles Bergman was a camera assistant, camera operator and editor for the PSA. During the filming process, he and his crew would go on location and game plan their shots, sometimes with help from talent or the graduate students.
“I do recommend this kind of experience to other students because this is a great way to get to know other students you work with. It is also an opportunity to work on bigger electronic field productions that you may not be able to get through regular classes,” said Bergman. “I personally found it to be a way to explore outside of my video comfort zone, which may also be the case for other students.”
Currently, the PSA is being phased through the post-production phase, where Crowe, Bergman and the other media production students are hard at work to release the final cut to send to Fort Bend County for review before it is ready for official release.The PSA is expected to be released in the next month or so, and will be shown on local Fort Bend County channels. It will also be available for viewing on Fort Bend County’s website.