It’s hard to imagine a more extreme turnaround than the relationship between the UK public and health and pharma brands. For years, the default position of the average person was either disinterest or distrust, in the face of hard-to-decipher medical statistics or media reports of big pharma profiteering.
But as PRWeek News Editor Arvind Hickman noted in his introduction to the recent virtual roundtable, in association with WE Communications, the Covid-19 pandemic has reawakened public interest. From scrutiny of clinical trials and vaccine developments in the headlines to the country tuning in to watch Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty’s press conferences, interest in the healthcare sector has boomed – even extending to campaigns fronted by Elton John and people sharing their vaccine cards on social media.
But how can health and pharma brands leverage unprecedented levels of public interest to build trust, transparency and confidence beyond the Covid-19 crisis? Joining the roundtable, a panel of senior comms professionals discussed lessons learned and the road ahead, with the line-up featuring Avril Fudge (PR Lead, Accord), Helen MacBain (Head of Communications, bit.bio), Stefanie Holman (Head of Corporate Communications, Sanofi), James Hargrave (Associate Director, Policy and Communications, MSD), Imogen Shillito (Director of Communications & Stakeholder Engagement, National Institute for Health Research) and Catherine Devaney (Deputy Managing Director & Head of Health, WE Communications).
During the free-to-attend event, the panel agreed the relationship between the public and the healthcare sector is precarious, with MacBain citing the bumpy roll-out of the AstraZeneca vaccine as an example. Referring to the reporting of such findings and the decision of many countries to stall the use of AstraZeneca as a precautionary measure, Devaney said: “We recognise that when you’re communicating about drugs in the media, you’re a ‘wonder drug’ one day, then there’ll be a side effect reported and you’re producing a ‘killer drug’ the next day. But it’s really surprised me, the geopolitics we’ve seen around the AstraZeneca vaccine.”
Meanwhile, Schillito noted that a priority for healthcare comms teams going forward would be to extend the public’s willingness to participate in Covid-19 trials into research for other medical conditions. “We’ve had these big successes in public engagement for Covid-19. The challenge for us now is looking at how we transfer the goodwill we’ve seen among the public into other research.”
The panel agreed that comms held a pivotal role in strengthening the bond between the public and health and pharma brands, but each participant had a different take. Fudge said that making complex data more accessible and transparent was at the heart of the healthcare comms role. “Now is our time to demystify science. It goes back to clear messaging, because the public just wants to know: how have the vaccines been produced so quickly? Will there be side effects? I think some of the messaging around that from the government hasn’t really been connecting with what people want to know. So they come out with these convoluted press conferences, when really it’s more about distilling the information into bite-size chunks.”
“For us, it’s about taking an insight-driven and audience-centric approach,” said Holman. “Making sure our communications are relatable, actionable, timely and human and showing we’re not a corporate machine. We’re actively optimising our channel mix, looking more in-depth at what channel we’re using for which audience. We’ve surveyed our followers on social media and had a thousand people on Twitter and LinkedIn giving us input – so now our communications via those channels are focused on those insights.”
Meanwhile, at a time when expert voices have come to the fore, Devaney said that healthcare firms should build trust by letting their senior teams establish an open dialogue with stakeholders. “This isn't just about top-down, ivory tower, my thoughts of the day, but about a two-way engagement with internal and external stakeholders, with leaders listening as well as speaking up about their own vulnerability. Our new research, Rethinking the Purpose and Meaning of Leadership, shows that 71% of senior leaders believe that articulating their personal core values is more important for them now than it was a year ago. That's one of our biggest challenges: how do we get these people confident enough to be consistently open and communicating?”
Shaping business strategies
Meanwhile, comms professionals have never been better-placed to help shape business strategy within their organisations. The panel reflected that during the Covid crisis, the comms function had come to the fore, with teams rising to the challenge of quickfire and long-term decision-making, employee engagement, external comms and exec team counselling. The priority, said Fudge, was to maintain that empowerment post-Covid. “We need to keep that going. We’ve risen to the forefront, and people are turning to PR and comms. But how do we keep adding that value and worth? How can we transfer our thoughts from ‘this is a crisis’ to ‘this is the new normal’? I think that will present just as many challenges, internally as well as externally.”
In rounding up the discussion, Holman asked how pharma and healthcare comms can capitalise on the brand’s “moment in the sun” and leverage the current goodwill. The panel agreed that comms teams should tread carefully, maintain clear messaging and take nothing for granted during the UK’s tentative recovery. But just as important, said Devaney, was to ask ourselves what the industry ultimately hopes to gain from its public perception, and to stay focused on relevant stakeholders and the service offered to them. “As much as it appeals to me that you can now buy pharma merch – to what end? What is that doing for our industry and the stakeholders that we serve? So I think engagement with patient stakeholders and other stakeholders is where we all need to focus our efforts. On how we better engage and communicate with the people we’re serving as a sector.”
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