The impact of COVID-19 on the pharma industry and its reputation

The impact of COVID-19 on the pharma industry and its reputation

The sudden and dramatic emergence of COVID-19 has focused attention once again on pharma and the needs to research and deliver effective treatments as well as a much-needed vaccine. Right now, the world has arguably never been so engaged in what it takes to make a medicine.

From a reputation perspective, the pharmaceutical industry has long struggled to communicate its value and build trust, despite the incredible advances over the last decade. But the role of the healthcare industry in meeting the challenges of COVID-19 cannot be overstated. Coronavirus has undoubtedly created a shift in the perception of pharma, with conversations moving away from high drug prices, to the industry’s more commendable work to develop vaccines and therapies through various partnerships and collaboration.

On Wednesday 13th May 2020, we hosted a webinar with a panel of industry experts to look closely at the current challenges and priorities pharma will be facing from a communications perspective, how this will impact the industry in terms of its reputation, and how pharma can and should tell its story.

Featured panellists:

  • Kristine Kelly, Director of Communications at Novartis UK Oncology
  • Alexander Davies, Senior Director at Hanover Communications
  • Elaine Towell, Head of Communications and Media at ABPI
  • Amy Hayer, Moderator, Director, Hanson Search


What do you feel have been the priorities of pharmaceutical companies in terms of their communications strategies and implementation over the past few months?

Kristine Kelly (KK): For us, as a pharmaceutical company, there have been two main priorities including internal and external communications. Everything we've put together has had three main points around what we’re trying to communicate: 1, the safety and support of our employees; 2, the continuity of supply of our medicines; and 3, supporting communities and the NHS by taking a step back and thinking about everything that we’re putting out there and whether it’s enough.

Alexander Davies (AD): I think we are in the second of three phases in how pharma is responding to this virus. The first phase was quite similar to any crisis communications reaction. The first thing we needed to do as an industry was get very clear and concise information out quickly about how this pandemic was affecting the supply of our medicines to patients, how we as a business are going to continue to function, and what the immediate ramifications of this virus are on our business, our medicines, and the people who need them.

Pretty quickly we moved into the second phase which we’re in now: how are we contributing to this fight and what value are we adding? We’ve seen some brilliant work from the industry such as ensuring that ventilation equipment and PPE and people are available. The industry is doing more now to collaborate with the NHS and doing so faster. I expect we’ll be in this phase for a little while longer.

The third phase will be how this pandemic changes our longterm story. Every business will need their own story around their COVID experience and contribution and how this has changed us and the way we think about medicines discovery and collaboration. Also, what is our role as the world recovers? Those are things we in communications should be thinking about now.

Elaine Towell (ET):  Coming from an industry-wide perspective, what we see on a daily basis, whether you’re a pharmaceutical company that’s researching a vaccine or not, most companies are involved in the national effort to tackle the virus in some way. For the ABPI, medicine supply has been a huge issue, so the communications to our members around what is required as well as the comms to government to make sure the two are lined up, has been a big priority.

Second is communicating the global research and development (R&D) effort. There’s an unprecedented amount of work going on around the globe so we’ve been working very closely with trade bodies in Europe and the US to make sure the messaging around that effort is consistent. And third, the ABPI has been facilitating volunteer work with the NHS, making sure anyone from a company who wants to get involved can get involved, whether that’s a front line doctor or to support the national testing effort.

The important thing to note is that all of this work is being done through necessity. The PR value is irrelevant at this time. People want to get involved with the communications and do what they can. As a trade body, it’s such a fast moving landscape we need to be fleet of foot. We’re working 24/7. We have a rolling brief which is a 70 page document for our members which we update hourly containing a Q&A on coronavirus and every piece of R&D that’s going on around the globe.

Who delivers the communications is also really important. It should be a chief executive-led initiative. We try to get out a lot of content and information from our CEO and you see that from other companies as well. There’s much more of a focus on prioritising the science and the research and putting a face to a name.

As the pandemic evolves, what do you think will be the key opportunities or challenges for the industry from a communications perspective?

KK: Communications will have to be agile. The situation and how it’s impacting stakeholders is changing so quickly. The way that they’ve had to adapt over the past few months has been huge. Many of the patient groups have up to 70% of their staff furloughed and for HCPs many have been pulled into other places. They are navigating this new territory and we have an opportunity to think about where their place is now, how their role has changed, and how we work and communicate with them.

Another thing that’s come to the forefront during this crisis is the gaps in services within the NHS. How do we as a pharma company work with the NHS and raise awareness of those gaps in order to address them, but in a way that doesn’t look like we are being negative or critical of the NHS?

AD: As long as I’ve worked in pharma, we’ve always complained about how people see us. We’ve never been happy with our reputation. At Hanover, we’ve done some analysis on the public’s perception and trust in the industry.

There has never been more attention on what we do than there is now or on the value of good healthcare. If we can't show that value to the world now, then when can we? We need to harness that attention and awareness of how quickly we are working and the importance of our work. How do we maintain that sentiment, that audience interest, and this feeling that actually we do have a role to play in society?

ET:  I agree, it's important to harness that positive attention now. It really depends how everything unfolds. Pharma and the ABPI, we're dealing with huge expectations about when a vaccine or treatment will be available. And as part of that the public will have to deal with the failure of vaccines which is going to be a big challenge for companies with repercussions on how people feel about the industry. Scaling up a vaccine, meeting the demand, who gets the vaccine - those will all be challenges. And how do we communicate global policy to a UK audience?

One of the biggest challenges will be the post-COVID landscape. When do you start having those difficult conversations about things like access to medicines, which historically has been an issue in this industry, or the value of vaccines. There is now a good 'opportunity' or need for some content to educate the public on the time and length and price of producing a vaccine, anti-vaxxing, and the value of vaccines to society generally.

How can pharma tell this positive story and add value without seeming opportunistic?

KK: One thing Novartis is doing is talking about what we're doing without promoting it. You can go on our website and find information about our COVID-19 response. As in most communications planning, it's always more sincere when others talk about you than when you do it yourself. There's a real need for that from the ABPI, because it's not a company-specific challenge but an industry-wide perception challenge.

How do we work in partnership as a full industry to show what we've all been doing? The ABPI has a huge role to play in that positioning. It's that collective voice that will be really important.

ET: I don't think I've seen a single example over the last few months of a pharma or biotech company acting an opportunistic way. Bear in mind, these are companies that don't seek the limelight. They are more likely to not tell you about what they are doing. They're not going on the television to talk about it. That is where the ABPI steps in.

If you look at Brexit compared to now, the ABPI was front and centre then, but companies are taking the stage now. The ABPI can talk top-line, generally about the industry, but we're seeing individual scientists come through from companies and there's a real appetite for that knowledge.

The motto of the ABPI communications is to be the voice of reason. There's so much nonsense in the media and in the public domain. If you can go out there and be fact-based, rational and reasonable, provide irrefutable evidence and an opinion on what you're doing and not do that for the sake of PR, then that's how pharma tells a positive story.

AD: This industry is not an opportunistic industry. This is an industry that tends to do good stuff quietly. To avoid the opportunistic claim is to be both factual and add value. Let other people infer whether you're doing brilliant work or not, but tell them what you're doing to support the effort.

There will be really interesting questions that need answering in the medium-term of this pandemic. What impact will COVID-19 have on the medicines discovery process? What impact will it have on the way we can work together? We've seen in the last seven weeks more than we usually see in seven months. There will be big meaty questions we need to get through and if we can do that work and tell that story in a factual way then we can show that value without being opportunistic.

Looking forward, what do you think the impact of COVID-19 will be on the reputation of the pharma industry if we do tell those stories and highlight that work?

KK: Alex and Elaine both made a good point before about how we need to communicate the value piece. It could be very easy to slide back into where we were before. We see how fickle the press is. 

How do we hold on to that message about the value that we deliver as people move on from COVID and get back to their usual routines? The key will be how we can keep that dialogue going.

ET: The reputation of the pharma industry going forward probably hinges on what happens with a vaccine and a treatment. We have to be realistic. There is a massive opportunity for the industry to come out of this in a positive way, but it does rely on the efforts of the global pharma industry and the commitments they've made to what happens when a vaccine or treatment is discovered. There are difficult challenges ahead around affordability and fair access.

On the positive side, there are so many good things going on. The amount of collaboration, companies sharing their libraries and working together on products that potentially might be unbranded, or CEOs talking about a not-for-profit in a certain time period. At the same time, these companies are getting medicines to the NHS and ICU patients and volunteering as doctors or in the ambulance service. There's such a positive story to tell. Hopefully that will shine through.

AD: The future is ours to define. We do have a real opportunity to tell a more positive story with audiences who've never been so engaged. I don't think we've ever seen three words with more prominence than 'underlying health conditions'. What this virus has done is shown the importance of keeping people well and providing access to treatments. It's up to us to maintain that level of interest.

The role of the vaccine and the ongoing search for the vaccine will be the most high profile part of this effort. But we all have a role to play and stories to tell. If I were the head of communications for a pharma company right now, I would be looking at the kind of activity that we're doing, not only with the NHS but also crucially with patient groups who I know are desperate for support. We've not talked about charities yet but I feel for those who are working for the charities because their funding has all but dried up. Working with them over the coming months is going to be crucial because they play a vital role in the healthcare journey and for patients. I'd also be thinking about what are the big questions that will be left after this virus that we can answer.


Audience Q&A:

Patient organisations are facing huge challenges in generating income in the current climate. Is pharma doing enough to adapt their application process to help support the fast track grants for charities?

KK: The challenge is that normally when a group applies for a grant it's for a specific project, but now, because so many funding streams are drying up, they don't have the funds to continue to run their daily help lines, they need more nurse support, they need more people on the phones. That's a different type of need than we normally see through our grant processes.

My understanding is that a lot of pharma companies have set up a separate process for emergency COVID donations or grants so that the special projects fund is still there and accessible, but there is also support now through a different stream for their immediate needs.

What do you think about the opportunity for the sector to play this into developing STEM skills and highlighting different types of skills in the future, for instance, who is involved in developing a vaccine?

AD: That's a fantastic example of what I was talking about earlier in terms of finding ways to maintain the momentum of the interest in what it takes to make a medicine. How can we maintain this level of interest and develop scientists of the future and be seen to play a role in developing a workforce of the future that is scientifically equipped and ready to make the next vaccine?

ET: The ABPI has an entire department related to developing careers and it's one of the things that we have definitely seen coming through on social media from the companies. Rather than talk about disease awareness in the abstract, we're seeing more content on science and education.

 We've already created a lot of content. We have a schools website and section and we will definitely be including that in our next iteration of our 'value of medicines' campaigns. I agree, that's an example of the kind of communications we should be doing.

To what extent do you feel that this pandemic has shown the ability of the pharma industry to think and act innovatively and with speed for the benefit of public health? Is there something we're missing here that would be beneficial for companies outside the industry to learn from, for example, simplifying business processes?

AD: Before we talk about the lessons for outside the industry, let's not pretend we've learned all the lessons ourselves yet. Before this pandemic, in normal times, if you'd say to a pharma company, 'I need you to send some of your people who are clinically trained back to the NHS and it needs to happen next week’ then you'd be laughed out of the room. Pharma can't work that quickly. Think of the number of approvals you'd need, the compliance forms, all the processes would take months.

But actually we've shown that we can move quickly and decisively and do the right thing. I don't think our learnings are over yet.

The key question for me is will this be a turning point? We've been able to do more with the NHS on the front line in seven weeks at speed than we ever have done before. We've always been "good-ish" at collaborating with the NHS, but what we are seeing now is deeper and faster and more meaningful than it has been in a long time.

We should be incredibly proud of that but the question is whether this will be a vaccine for analysis paralysis? That ill that many pharma companies suffer from when doing the right thing gets killed by red tape and bureaucracy.

ET: We've seen other companies and industries step forward and show how they can move  swiftly, look at things like ventilators being made. We are still learning. My understanding from our policy teams is that we're also learning a lot at the moment about how we deliver healthcare differently. For example, lots of things have stopped in the NHS to deal with COVID-19, clinical trials being one of them. We're learning all the time about how we can help patients get medicines in a different way - can we do things from the home, digitally. All of these learning can be taken forward to progress healthcare and clinical trials in other disease areas.

The one thing I would hope and assume would come from this is that companies are sharing and working in collaboration more than they've ever done before and if you find a vaccine for something within nine months to two years, you would assume that education would be taken forward.

KK: We can also look internally at how pharma has innovated, such as how our internal communications strategies have changed. With pharma staff being called back to the front lines for instance, that involved a huge amount of internal communications and coordination. We're focusing a lot on the external perception, but we shouldn't lose the fact that this has caused a lot of internal comms and processes to change and innovate too.

Many patients groups have seen substantial reduction in income from fundraising and lots of small and medium sized charities may not survive this crisis. How should pharma be seen to support groups that have campaign advocacy or disease awareness roles that are needed after COVID-19?

KK: When I talk to the groups that we work with, it's heartbreaking to hear about all the challenges they're facing at a time when they are needed more than ever. In general, pharma communications need to move from being siloed to being collaborative and this is an opportunity for us to do that now with our groups, in an appropriate way that doesn't impact their independence, and potentially ease the resource demands on patient groups.

What are some of the most important policy responses that could have made the most difference in our initial response to COVID-19?

AD: I think it's too early to say what this government should have done differently and what the policy decisions should have been. It's also potentially too early to say how better we could have been prepared for this. For a time, the UK was leading the world in its pandemic preparedness and for reasons that may be for another day to discuss that ebbed away. We've not seen the level of response that we may have wanted to and there have already been some criticisms about the speed at which the government responded. It is too early to say what those policies and responses should have been but that work will ramp up and continue.

While we're talking about policy, when it comes to healthcare, we have not seen a huge amount of parliamentary time or attention over the past couple of years because of Brexit. Brexit stole a lot of the bandwidth around policy, not just from healthcare but from everything. We now have a parliament that is completely focused on one thing again, this pandemic, and the question is when will we get back to being able to progress policies that will help patients again. When will we be able to push things through a parliament and get to debate issues like we used to?

Are there any specific pharma companies that stand out to you as having communicated their efforts in a positive way?

ET: This one could get me into trouble with colleagues! There are a few that have come out and looked really good. GSK are not a company that seek the limelight but obviously their work  - stepping forward and sharing their library - has been good and it's been picked up on. AstraZeneca have come out and are doing great work. I wouldn't necessarily say the communications around that have been huge. Johnson and Johnson have been fantastic. They've been up on stages globally throughout the pandemic.

As we said earlier, a lot of these companies don't seek the limelight. You might see the odd press release come out on some of these things, but really the work is just happening. It's down to people at the ABPI to communicate that across the whole industry.

Another company that does very well in communications is Takeda. Their global CEO is doing a lot of work. The IFPMA press conferences are all available online and they're worth watching because you'll see the global leaders standing up and taking the stage there. They've been brilliant and well-received across the world and in the media. They're the ones that spring to mind. Now I'll probably get a phone call later about this. 

How will pharma make sure it maintains this momentum to change the reputation of the industry? Are there any longterm plans?

ET: The longterm plans have been there for years. It's something we're trying to do on a constant basis. I genuinely think that this situation has encouraged companies to come out and be more open about what they're doing. I assume that once you open the floodgates you can't really turn that back off again. It just takes a few people to put their heads above the parapet. As long as it's focusing on the science and the R&D, they're on fairly good ground.

It will take a lot to turn the industry around to be one that's constantly in the public eye, but every single communications department in the pharma industry will be thinking about this. A lot of companies are directed globally or from a European-level so it's not always a UK decision. What we see here in the UK isn't necessarily what's going on. We have media interviews that are regularly turned down, not because the company doesn't want to do them, but because they're prioritising other countries' media. It's an ongoing project. It just takes time.

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