Reputation and morale: pharma firm's UK head of corporate comms reveals legacy of the pandemic

Agency leaders and the UK head of corporate comms one of the world’s biggest pharma firms have given a frank insight into the threats and opportunities posed by the pandemic, at a roundtable hosted by PRWeek and WE Communications.

COVID-19 placed internal and external comms demands on pharma companies (pic credit: Getty)
COVID-19 placed internal and external comms demands on pharma companies (pic credit: Getty)

The event brought together comms leaders to look at the issues raised by unprecedented levels of public interest in the pharma sector. 

The pandemic has focused attention on the work of pharma businesses, with the sector front and centre of the response to a virus that has killed more than 127,000 people in the UK alone.

Over the past year pharma firms have become household names and headline news in the mainstream media as a result of the race to formulate, test and roll out a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Speaking in a personal capacity, Stefanie Holman, head of corporate communications at Sanofi UK & Ireland, said one of the challenges of the past year has been to deal with the demands from senior staff for Sanofi to have a “voice” regarding the COVID-19 vaccine issue.

Holman highlighted the importance of choosing “wisely and appropriately, when to raise our voice”. She said it was about “being heard, but the right time and at the right place, and with the right audiences. I don't think that we will get ever to a point where a brand like Sanofi, for example, will be a household brand like AstraZeneca or Pfizer, unless we deliver something as a business that meets the general public's needs.”

High profile

The prominence of pharma in recent months has led to a seismic shift in the value placed on comms, said Holman.

She described having spent years fighting to get greater recognition at senior levels of the importance of  comms. “In the pandemic, that was the first time ever, in all those years, where I felt, finally, that was being listened to… I would really hope that finally, we have this kind of open ears [situation], even with our leadership team, where we say that it's important for us to be purposeful, that we understand our audiences, what they want from us, what they're interested in, we make it relatable, we make it human, that we're not a corporate machine, that the public understands what contribution we are making to society.”

Referring to company leaders, she added: “Before, I felt like we spoke different languages, and it was so difficult to get them to come along with us.”

One of the legacies of the pandemic has been the elevation of comms as a discipline, according to Catherine Devaney, deputy managing director and head of health, UK, at WE Communications.

She said there has been “recognition among some of the companies that lagged behind that communications is a strategic function that needs to be at board level… and I think that's been a real positive for us as a discipline”.

Devaney argued that a strategic approach is needed, rather than chasing an increased profile for its own sake. 

She concluded: “Reframing the question around engagement with patient stakeholders, with other stakeholders, is probably where we will need to really focus our efforts on how we better engage and communicate with the people we're serving as a sector.”

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