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Washington State coach Nick Rolovich's vaccine stance has become PR problem for hospital, experts say

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Sitting behind a backdrop of advertisements for a prominent local hospital, Washington State football coach Nick Rolovich once again tried to parry questions about his stance on the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I’m not going to talk about that,” Rolovich said Monday.

A local reporter had asked him whether he received or scheduled his vaccine shot amid vaccine mandates for WSU students and state employees.

In response, Rolovich deflected as he has done since announcing in July that he elected not to get vaccinated “for reasons which will remain private.”

But this time something stuck out: Those advertisements for that hospital – Pullman Regional Hospital – made it seem even more awkward in terms of public messaging, marketing experts said. Pullman Regional Hospital is an official sponsor of WSU athletics and has invested in having its name attached to the program, in this case with logos all over the background behind the coach during his news conference.

The same hospital confirmed it has had to turn away requests from other hospitals to accept transfer patients recently because of a lack of availability. About "95% to 99%" of its recent COVID-19 inpatients are unvaccinated, according to a report by the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.

Yet here was the hospital’s brand being seen on local news, YouTube and Twitter, prominently displayed behind the only head coach in major college football to say he won’t get vaccinated. On Monday, he was asked about his vaccine status in front of those logos eight different times.

The hospital in Pullman on Tuesday declined to answer questions about Rolovich. In response to an inquiry from USA TODAY Sports, the hospital issued this statement:

“As the official hospital of Washington State University Athletics, Pullman Regional Hospital supports the athletics program in its entirety — which is more than 475 student-athletes, the coaching staff, fans and alums.”

Brand experts see it as a problem for the hospital. In August, a hospital in Michigan cut ties with Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins after he made similar deflections in response to vaccine questions.

Washington State coach Nick Rolovich has declined to say whether he has received the COVID-19 vaccine.
Washington State coach Nick Rolovich has declined to say whether he has received the COVID-19 vaccine.

“At a time when hospital workers across the country are begging American’s to get vaccinated to prevent the spread of COVID, the stance taken by Nick Rolovich is a huge embarrassment for Washington State University,” said Kelly O’Keefe, a corporate brand strategist and CEO of the Brand Federation marketing consultancy in Virginia. “This presents a very real risk for sponsors like Pullman Regional Hospital and others. I would counsel the leadership of Pullman (hospital) to make it clear, with both their voice and their dollars, that the school needs to put an end to this embarrassing episode.”

Rolovich, whose team is 1-1 this year during his second season at WSU, declined to say how he’ll comply with a state mandate requiring him to get the shot or get an exemption based on medical or religious reasons. The deadline set by Gov. Jay Inslee for state workers to be fully vaccinated is Oct. 18.

Rolovich said Monday he said he still planned on “following the mandate and doing what I need to do to be the coach here.”

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Asked if he was seeking a medical or religious exemption, he said, “I’m not going to talk about that either.”

By contrast, the hospital’s message on the subject has been much different. In July, the hospital announced a vaccine requirement for employees.

“The vaccine is the most valuable technology for fighting the pandemic,” the hospital said then. “By full vaccination of employees, our organization has an opportunity to set an example and facilitate the healthiest quality of life for our community. We agree with public health experts and virologists in that the vaccine is both very safe and extremely effective.”

Hospitals take this messaging seriously. Holland Hospital in Holland, Michigan, recently said it was severing its sponsorship ties with Cousins after he also parried vaccine questions, saying it was a “very private health matter.” He apparently declined the vaccine, according to available evidence from NFL protocols. In 2020, he talked about COVID-19 and said, “If I die, I die.”

In August, that hospital addressed the matter with a statement:

"While we acknowledge that each person is entitled to their own viewpoints, those who speak on our behalf must support messages that align with the hospital’s position on matters of vital importance to individual and community health," the statement said. "For this reason, Holland Hospital will discontinue using Kirk Cousins as our spokesperson for now.”

Holland Hospital declined further comment this week.

Unlike that hospital’s sponsorship with Cousins, the hospital in Pullman doesn’t have a direct sponsorship with Rolovich. But the effect is the same, said Justin Joseph, a public relations expert at Boston University. Even though the hospital’s sponsorship is with WSU athletics, Rolovich is sitting in front of hospital logos as the university’s most high-profile employee.

The hospital also was the presenting sponsor for WSU's football game last week, when WSU honored workers from the hospital on the field.

“Pullman Hospital is going to be associated with the coach and the university,” said Joseph, the former director of global public relations for Teladoc Health. The risk for the hospital, he said, is being associated with a messenger perceived as not taking community health seriously. In July, Rolovich was the only Pac-12 coach not to attend a media event in person in Los Angeles because he declined to get the vaccine as required to attend.

Since then, the delta variant has spread, especially in Idaho, not far from the WSU campus. Idaho has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the county at about 42%, with residents recently seeking care across the border in Washington state because of overwhelmed hospitals in Idaho.

“This is a great opportunity for Pullman (hospital) to make a strong statement: 'We aren’t working with anyone that doesn’t support vaccination,’ ” said Tim Calkins, Clinical Professor of Marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. " 'That includes our employees, our partners and our sponsors.' "

WSU issued a statement Tuesday when asked about it:

“WSU Athletics appreciates and values our partnership with Pullman Regional Hospital. We continue to educate our student-athletes, staff and coaches on the importance of vaccinations and doing all that we can to protect the health and safety of everyone at Washington State University and our Pullman community.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nick Rolovich's vaccine stance an issue for Washington State, hospital

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