Lessons from the pandemic on the importance of a considered and careful approach to communication

Key Takeaways  

1. Make sure your communications are appropriate for your intended audience. However, in the context of COVID, you should also be even more cognisant of your broader audience and the potential to reach new people and possibly unintended audiences. 

2. Focus on quality, relatable content and avoid the temptation to be ‘first’ over being truthful and accurate. Do not undermine the science and ensure that communications are accurate, void of superlatives and will stand the test of time.  

3. Ensure that technical information is filtered through qualified professionals and that, where possible, they are equipped to relay the message effectively (supporting visual tools and information).

4. Consider the bigger picture and the potential implications certain communications might have on other treatment areas and patient wellbeing.  

Over the past two years, scientific communications, and the communications of pharmaceutical companies have been at the top of the news agenda more than they have ever been before. We have seen exponential interest and increased awareness and sophistication around the public’s understanding of the ins and outs of drug development and delivery. News relating to the virus, efficacy data, innovations, and specific products, which had previously been the domain of experts, industry insiders and healthcare media has been democratised to the extent that everyone now considers themselves an expert!  

"News relating to the virus, efficacy data, innovations, and specific products, which had previously been the domain of experts, industry insiders and healthcare media has been democratised to the extent that everyone now considers themselves an expert!"

As someone working in the world of healthcare communication and reputation it has been a fascinating two years. We have witnessed the industry transform how it communicates and there’s much to be learned. A recent report from Ipsos MRBI and our client MSD Ireland has highlighted that increased familiarity with pharmaceutical companies exists, largely as an unintended consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the demand for new information and solutions to the crisis. Positively, the same report also highlights strong levels of trust among the general population within Irish pharmaceutical companies and the pharmaceutical sector.  

However, misinformation, disinformation and an ‘Infodemic’ where the average person was inundated with technical information have thrown up challenges and risks that all communicators need to be aware of and plan for.  

"A good reputation can take years to build, but can be broken in an instant, and a fine balance exists between risk and reward in the context of communicating during COVID-19."

Failure to anticipate change

An emerging theme has been a failure to anticipate emerging developments and mitigate against potential future risk with any great care or consideration. As the coronavirus mutates and changes, our response and efforts to beat the virus are likewise shifting and changing at breakneck pace. As a result, some communications can become dated very quickly, while others can’t be communicated quick enough. 

Disinformation attacks

Many companies, individuals, thought leaders and government officials have witnessed their communications being re-packaged, deliberately misinterpreted, and repurposed dishonestly over the course of the pandemic. Combined with an amplified reach, and a frustrated audience, these communications when repurposed are intended to maim the reputation of the communicator, and to negatively impact trust among their audience.  

Examples of efficacy data, press releases and social media posts have all been targeted and repurposed with the intention of undermining the communications of those making great strides to resolve the global pandemic. Great care must be taken to consider the longevity, lifespan, and reach of communications and data, especially while operating in a global pandemic, with a mutating virus.  

Reacting to new threats 

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and while many predicted the virus would mutate, many were not expecting it to change so dramatically from Delta to Omicron. Approximately 50 genetic mutations occurred, 36 of which are in the spike, (normally the key area for antibodies to recognise and fight the virus), more than double the mutations seen in previous strains of the virus. The mutations dampening existing resistance built against the virus, have also dampened the efficacy data of several key vaccines and treatments being used to combat it.   

Bigger picture thinking

Several warnings were sounded by industry leaders about the potential detrimental impacts that some communications might have on trust and confidence among the public, especially with so many unknowns and moving parts. The mutations in the virus and waning efficacy data as a result, empowered new narratives which were potentially harmful beyond just COVID-19. Vaccination can be a sensitive and complex topic as it is and the need for a more careful and considered approach to the transfer of information between pharmaceutical companies during COVID-19 and the wider public is required. Furthermore, an over-arching cognisance of the bigger picture and potential impact that certain communications can have on other treatment areas of healthcare, such as routine vaccinations like HPV, MMR, Pneumo, Chickenpox, etc… 

Issues prioritisation

Here in Ireland, a huge amount of work by our frontline workers and health system has already been undertaken to drive uptake of routine vaccinations and help prevent potentially deadly diseases and cancers. Prior to the pandemic, uptake of HPV vaccine had steadily increased year-on-year, following an initial decline. Now, the eradication of a cancer (Cervical Cancer) incredibly, can be a reality here in Ireland, and an achievable goal in line with the World Health Organisations (WHO) global strategy.

It’s important that efforts to alleviate COVID-19 and communications during the pandemic don’t impede the bigger picture outlined above, including the prevention of potentially deadly diseases, or the WHO initiative to eradicate Cervical Cancer. Aside from HPV vaccine uptake, we have already seen over the last two years declining numbers of people seeing their doctors, the disruption of cancer screening services and procedures and many more concerning health trends which have emerged.  

   

"It’s important that efforts to alleviate COVID-19 and communications during the pandemic don’t impede the bigger picture outlined above, including the prevention of potentially deadly diseases, or the WHO initiative to eradicate Cervical Cancer."

Timely not speedy 

We must ensure that the communications are appropriate first and foremost, over the need to be ‘first out of the traps’ with any new piece of research or data. This can be difficult due to the intense speed with which the pharmaceutical industry, our healthcare professionals and our health system is having to adapt and respond to situations as they develop, but it can be achieved.  

A good reputation can take years to build, but can be broken in an instant, and a fine balance exists between risk and reward in the context of communicating during COVID-19. Risk exists for companies and individuals who fail to communicate appropriately and whose communications and product narratives fail to stand the test of time. 

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