What can we learn about effective healthcare comms from the current vaccine media frenzy?


It’s fair to say 2020 has been an unusual year for many reasons, but if you work in healthcare communications, perhaps one of the more surprising effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the unprecedented interest in our field of expertise.

Thanks to the recent vaccine data readouts from Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca (and the subsequent approval for the former) there has never been a time of such widespread interest in clinical trials or pharmaceutical companies.

(For more on the role we played in supporting the Pfizer Corporate Affairs team in Canada with their vaccine announcements, please see: Solid science, clear communications and hope.)

The spotlight shining on these clinical trials and fast-tracked approvals provides an opportunity for healthcare communicators to take stock and consider what we can learn from the vaccine media frenzy over the past 8 months. Whether you’re working in vaccines or any other healthcare space, there are valuable parallels to be drawn about how to communicate more effectively in these unusual times and beyond.

You have no control of your message once it is in the public domain. One of the earliest BBC news segments on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines included a slip up from a reporter claiming that the vaccine had been tested on more than 43,000 volunteers – missing the vital detail that half of the participants received a placebo. We rely on others to help tell our story and unfortunately, we are subject to their misunderstandings.

You also, to some extent, have no control of what you’re up against in the news. Now more than ever you need to cut through the noise. The daily stories on the impact of COVID, coupled now with the ongoing updates and opinion pieces on the vaccines, means it’s easy for other areas of healthcare to be relegated to the sidelines.

So how do you combat these problems? Whether you are speaking to the general public, healthcare providers or investors, first and foremost you need to ensure your messaging is watertight, consistent, delivered at the right time and more than anything, simple. (For more on other considerations for your audience and messages, please see: We finally have a vaccine, but will this bring about a return to normality?)

We live in a social world. An Ofcom survey completed in August 2020 found that 45% of adults in the UK use social media as a news source and Facebook was the third most popular news source overall (following BBC and ITV, respectively). The interest in the recent vaccine announcements has further highlighted the importance of social media as a channel for information exchange. Twitter has launched a specific COVID-19 tab on their explore page as a response to the volume of information being shared on the channel, and at the time of writing this, there were thousands of tweets using the hashtag #vaccines within a 24-hour period.

This should reiterate the importance of a multi-faceted communications strategy – one that reaches your audience where they are already looking for information. It is not enough to put a press release on the wire and call it a day. Have you mapped out where your target demographic is most active? Have you thought about tailoring your messaging and assets for print vs digital vs social? Have you measured where previous campaigns have landed well or not so well? Developing an insights-led strategy, putting in place contingency plans and implementing a range of communications tactics will help your story get the traction it deserves.

“Fake news” is the second pandemic of 2020. It is no longer possible to ignore the impact of misinformation on our industry. Vaccine scepticism is as old as vaccines themselves, but the level of scrutiny on the potential COVID vaccines has produced worrying levels of unsubstantiated news. For example, such claims against the AstraZeneca vaccine include: the vaccine contains aborted fetal tissue, the vaccine attacks genes in the body necessary for it to function, and the people in the vaccine trial already had immunity from the virus. This mistrust is not exclusive to any one company, or even any one treatment or vaccine. Pharmaceutical and healthcare communicators should be constantly and proactively thinking about reputation and how to protect it. Plan for potential misinterpretations and misinformation; do not wait for an issue to arise before you address it; look over your strategy and messaging with the critical eye of a skeptical journalist or an anxious patient. You may not be working in an area as weighted as vaccines right now but then again, it wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark. (For more considerations about understanding your audience’s perspectives, please see Understanding people’s fears and concerns relating to COVID-19 vaccines.)

Transparency is key. Whoever your audience, from investors to your own employees, and whatever your story, being transparent in your communications is vital to building trust. The narrative of the AstraZeneca vaccine is a great example of this. Hours after the AstraZeneca/ Oxford University interim data was released, Mene Pangalos, AstraZeneca’s head of non-oncology research and development, noted that the half-dose schedule which had shown the most promising results, had been a case of miscalculated dosing given to some volunteers. His explanation that “the reason we had the half dose is serendipity” suggested a level of honesty often missing from corporate updates; but Oxford University’s differing version of events (the institution maintains that the half-dose was a conscious decision) and the AstraZeneca update coming on the back of confusing initial results, has raised questions on the robustness of the data and ultimately led to more distrust. A more transparent and consistent message dissemination from both organizations from the outset—and a coordinated response—could have avoided these pitfalls.

Prepare people for what to expect. While it hasn’t happened yet (at the time of this writing), it is inevitable that some patients will have negative reactions to the vaccines (and/or eventual treatments). The side effects may also be unusual, particularly given the new approach using messenger RNA vaccines (for more on RNA vaccines, please see: Is the world ready for a COVID-19 vaccine?). With so many people already worried about vaccines in general, compounded by concerns from others about the speed with which COVID-19 vaccines have been rolled out, coverage and discussions around any side effects seen will likely exponentially snowball. Furthermore, such events are likely to be taken out of context, or used as a counter-information tool by anti-vaxx groups or other naysayers. It is critical, therefore, to get ahead of the story by providing healthcare providers, media and the public with proactive information on the types of side effects that may be seen and how they can be managed. This proactive communications approach to adverse event management is best practice for any kind of treatment—not just a new vaccine.

Essentially, there are both learnings and good reminders for everyone working in this space as we watch the coverage and public response to the constant funnel of healthcare news in the era of COVID.

Whether you’re working in vaccines or other therapy areas, we can support you with your communications planning and execution, from crafting a robust strategy and watertight messaging to issues preparedness and managing consistent implementation across multiple channels.

Contact us for more information on how we can help.

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