Development of vaccine boosts pharma’s reputation – but curb your enthusiasm

Right now, there’s no better route to great PR than giving the world a tool to curb COVID-19.

There are still mountains to climb with the comms around vaccine hesitancy, warns Claire Gillis
There are still mountains to climb with the comms around vaccine hesitancy, warns Claire Gillis

For 'Exhibit A', look no further than this week’s announcement of a vaccine breakthrough that could transform the fight against the latest coronavirus.

The latest results provide the first compelling evidence that a vaccine can prevent COVID-19, with interim data suggesting Pfizer’s vaccine is more than 90 per cent effective.

The news almost broke the internet, with commentators calling it "a great day for science and humanity".

With other effective vaccines potentially just around the corner, it’s hard to curb our enthusiasm. But perhaps we should… just a little… just for now.

The current positivity about vaccines marks a landmark moment in our bid for normality – and it provides a huge reputational boost for a pharma industry that rarely gets the credit it deserves.

However, bigger PR challenges likely lie ahead.

First of all, let’s be clear: curbing COVID-19 isn’t a PR exercise. It’s a social responsibility and business-as-usual for an industry whose very purpose is to improve health. But the uptick in reputation is a welcome side-effect.

Pharma’s stock has certainly been rising. The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer reveals record-breaking levels of public trust in the sector as the world looks to it for COVID-19 treatments.

The industry’s ‘net favourability’ is increasing too, with research showing many more people have a favourable impression of pharma than was the case just 12 months ago.

A key factor has been notable cross-sector collaboration and pro bono partnerships to unlock solutions to COVID-19.

It’s likely a happy accident, but news of the latest breakthrough coincided with a World Science Day that highlighted the importance of co-operation and open dialogue across the scientific community to tackle the pandemic.

Pharma has done exactly that. Companies haven’t just invested billions in vaccine development, they’ve shared goals, facilities, technologies and resources. And – crucially – they’ve shared the science.

We’re beginning to see the results – not just clinically, but reputationally too. However, other obstacles remain.

Despite the euphoria surrounding a potential vaccine, persuading people to say yes to it isn’t a formality.

Vaccine hesitancy is rife. According to recent research, just 55 per cent of UK adults would ‘definitely accept’ a vaccine for themselves while 34 per cent are still unsure.

It’s a similar picture all over the world and overcoming it is a PR battle in its own right.

Once again, trust is everything; people need to believe that vaccines are safe and effective.

That requires collaboration, dialogue, listening and understanding.

Progress will come not from shutting down debate but by engaging in it – fighting misinformation with evidence and promoting the human and societal value of science.

Our final threat is complacency: we must still treat the virus with respect. Vaccines may eventually prove to be game-changers but, for now, behaviour is key.

Like it or not, social distancing and hygiene remains the best tool we have for curbing COVID-19.

It’s a social responsibility and a collective responsibility – and it is one PR battle we can’t afford to lose.

Claire Gillis is international chief executive at WPP Health Practice

Thumbnail credit: Getty

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