- Presented by Syneos Health

Syneos Health Communications and GSK Put RSV Center Court With Magic Johnson

Scoring points for prevention

When the first RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) vaccines hit the market in 2023, it was a landmark moment for researchers, who had been working toward that goal for 60 years. But for those who were eligible to receive the new vaccines—older adults—RSV wasn't generally on their radar.

Most of the news coverage around RSV at the time focused on the threat the virus posed to small children. Coupled with post-pandemic vaccine fatigue and the confusing adult vaccine landscape in general, GSK and their PR agency for vaccines, Syneos Health Communications, needed to get bold and creative if they hoped to motivate older adults to be proactive about RSV.

"RSV is really common, and for older people it can be quite serious," said Denise Chappell, executive vice president at Syneos Health Communications, who leads communications and programming for the GSK vaccines franchise. "Here we were, finally able to help prevent RSV, and yet most older people didn't know they were at risk, let alone that there was something they could do about it. We had to change that."

So, GSK teamed up with Earvin "Magic" Johnson for a basketball-themed educational campaign and road show hosted at YMCAs in major media markets that have a higher population of older adults. The boots-on-the-ground events created opportunities for personal connections in welcoming community spaces, while a big-name celebrity and public health advocate brought national appeal. The pharma company and their agency dubbed the campaign "Sideline RSV" as both a nod to Johnson's legendary basketball career and a pledge to put RSV on the sidelines of people lives through prevention.

Data showed that more than half of older adults in the U.S. knew of and liked Johnson, and the personable basketball star proved that to be true when he captivated audiences with stories of his own surprise at learning that, at age 63, he too was at risk for RSV.

"Johnson commanded the room and engaged with the community in a two-way dialogue on this important public health topic from the moment he set foot in each one of those gyms," said Mindy Lizmi, senior vice president at Syneos Health Communications. "He encouraged people to make their game plan for RSV, and many attendees expressed intent to seek information about RSV and vaccination after the event, highlighting the true impact of our efforts."

Sideline RSV officially launched around March Madness, landing Johnson and the campaign features in TIME, LA Times, TODAY and People magazine. Across four YMCA events in fall 2023, nearly 500 older adults showed up for a chance to meet Johnson and learn about RSV, while media coverage of the events reached an estimated audience of 2.2B in less than two months.

During a Sideline RSV event hosted in Scottsdale, Arizona, one woman said, "I had only heard about RSV with babies—really was not aware of RSV impacting adults." In New York, another remarked that, "This was a good wake-up call for the community here. [Johnson's] voice resonates big time."

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