CAMBRIDGE, MA: As biotechnology company Moderna seeks Food and Drug Administration authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine, its communications team is endeavoring to be as transparent as possible.
Moderna has been busy this year. This week, the company revealed that its vaccine is 94% effective — and strongly protects against serious illness. The company submitted an application for emergency use authorization to the FDA and European Medicines Agency. Additionally, it plans to start testing the vaccine on children.
As one of the frontrunners in the race to find a vaccine and help end the pandemic, it’s hard to believe that Moderna’s communications department is only comprised of three people: chief corporate affairs officer Ray Jordan; corporate comms director Colleen Hussey, who runs media relations globally; and senior director of internal comms Kate O’Malley.
“[Hussey] and I have been the people on the hook for producing the press releases and engagements for Moderna,” explained Jordan. “We have hit 99 press releases this year so far, which is the highest productivity I have seen anywhere in my career. It’s been an exciting, exhilarating, exhausting time.”
While all content development has been done in-house, a few agencies have been aiding Moderna with PR. In the U.S., the company works with Weber Shandwick, and for all outside countries it retains FTI Consulting. Moderna also works with Sard Verbinnen & Co. and WilmerHale.
Jordan explained that Moderna has been a pre-commercial company up until the last few weeks, mostly operating as a research and development organization with a focus on clinical trials.
“When I began working with Moderna in March, there was not a global component to our business,” Jordan said. “Now we are in touch with two dozen countries.”
The release of Moderna’s data over the last week generated 3,000 U.S. articles and 7,000 articles internationally, Jordan said.
Until now, Jordan’s team had been communicating about the progress and process as the vaccine has been under development.
“Based on the extent of interest in the vaccine and the intense interest on the part of the press to follow the progress, we have leaned into the notion of transparency as we have talked about what we are doing with the vaccine,” explained Jordan. “We have leaned into transparency even when it might feel challenging or painful to the organization based on its habits and experience.”
By being transparent, Moderna hopes consumers will feel more educated and confident about the vaccine, added Hussey.
MacKay Jimeson, president of Ember Global Advisors and past senior director of corporate affairs at Pfizer, noted that the role of a vaccine innovator such as Moderna, particularly in a pandemic, is to maintain public trust by communicating their scientific data regularly and transparently.
“Messages should be grounded in science and delivered with compassion, conviction and optimism,” he advised. “Vaccine innovators also need to be vigilant of misinformation campaigns by activists and foreign agencies. It is important to be proactive in sharing scientific evidence and working with the appropriate authorities to protect the public.”
A diversity challenge leads to adjustments
One particular challenge Jordan highlighted was when Moderna learned its COVID-19 trial was not well represented in diverse communities. Additionally, Moderna decided to make some adjustments to the trial and slow down the speed of recruiting.
“So we acknowledged the gap and the fact we would slow the trial down,” he said.
At that point in September, Moderna started presenting weekly its progress in trials and the levels of enrollment.
Over the past few months, Moderna has been asked regularly about the particulars of how its trial was constructed, the conditions and the outcome measures. Those elements were part of a clinical protocol that provides regulators and investigators with information to determine how the trial is running.
Jordan said his team realized that instead of pointing reporters to press releases and statements with updates, it would be easier to publish the whole clinical protocol.
“That was a challenge and not within the muscle memory of any of us who have worked in the pharma business,” Jordan noted. “We did it, and within three days, three or four other companies running trials decided to publish their clinical trial protocols, too.”
Hussey added that another big question Moderna keeps getting from outlets is how it was able to devise a COVID-19 vaccine so quickly. She has been educating the media on Moderna’s technology, called messenger RNA (mRNA), which has never been used in a commercial vaccine.
“In reality, we have been pioneering the mRNA platform for nine years,” she explained.
While many have commended Moderna for its ability to quickly develop a vaccine, the pharma company has also faced political pressure to move faster. Following pressure from the White House to reach vaccine approval before the November election, Moderna -- along with AstraZeneca, BioNTech, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Novavax, Pfizer and Sanofi -- released a pledge in September to stick to the science in the development and licensing of a vaccine.
The underlying message Moderna’s comms team has conveyed to consumers throughout the pandemic? Hope.
“When our CEO, Stéphane Bancel, learned about the virus in January, he said, ‘I feel the need to at least try,’” said Hussey. “We weren’t sure what would happen with our vaccine candidate, but we said we will try our best and hopefully we can try to become a solution to this global pandemic and health emergency.”
Jordan added that, ultimately, science must lead all of Moderna’s messaging.
“We have cautious optimism, but we have to see the data from the clinical trials,” Jordan said.
The data itself has been a “great comms tool” for Jordan’s team. Moderna has been promoting its messaging via press releases, earned media outreach and social media.
Moderna is also partnering with the National Institutes of Health on its Phase I and Phase III studies.
“Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Francis Collins and members of their team have been incredible in amplifying our messages as well,” said Hussey. “Keeping those institutions informed has been an important part of the outreach work.”
Availability and quantity
Assuming the vaccine clears regulatory assessments, Moderna’s vaccine will have limited distribution. It initially will not be promoted as a branded product, but will be available through the government to populations based on risk and need.
“Our expectation is we will be communicating with people more about the availability of the vaccine and the quantity of it,” said Jordan.
Once the vaccine’s Biologics License Application is approved, it will become a branded product.
“At that point, it will fall more to our commercial team who will reach out to healthcare providers and others to talk about the product,” Jordan said.
Jordan’s team is already waging a constant battle of “whack-a-mole” against explicit misinformation about the vaccine. So it is staying vigilant and responding to any journalists or reports with even the slightest misunderstanding of facts.
“Our feeling is that misinformation unaddressed upfront can become apparently factual information over time,” he added.
To get facts straight, the comms team is going to “almost extreme” levels of transparency about company plans, actions and outcomes.
Moderna is not worried about competitors such as Pfizer. All the companies working on vaccines against COVID-19 are “rooting for one another,” added Hussey.
“The vaccine volume needed far exceeds what any individual manufacturer can create,” she said.
Pharmaceutical companies are also collaborating to address vaccine confidence issues to assure consumers about their efficacy.
“For the vaccines to be effective, you need to have enough of the population vaccinated so that everyone becomes less at risk,” explained Hussey. “So there’s a collective interest in that confidence.”
Being transparent about the specific steps Moderna takes to build, develop, test, produce and distribute vaccines will help to address hesitancy and boost confidence among consumers, Jordan said.
There has been a higher emphasis on internal comms, keeping staffers and the CEO linked up with what’s happening outside so they can anticipate questions from the press and consumers.
“Because we are adding manufacturing staff now, you have people making a vaccine for a pandemic that they are living through as they try to work,” said Jordan. “The testing, as well as communicating to staff on how to stay safe at home and at work is an additional challenge for internal comms.”
When asked if Moderna will bring on any new PR firms for support once the vaccine is approved, Jordan noted that the company is “in the process of engaging a branding agency to help with a revisioning of our enterprise brand and creating a product brand for the COVID-19 vaccine. As part of that exercise we will consider other agency support.”