Beyond standard healthcare branding

Now that COVID-19 vaccines have been approved, it's our turn, healthcare communicators

March 12, 2021

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First published on PMLive.

No one will ever deny that 2020 was an unprecedented year for our industry. Dedicated clinical teams working around the clock. Researchers exploring every possible defense. A global army of medics, administrators, and their auxiliary teams conducting clinical trials. All of this work came to fruition when Margaret Keenan, a 91-year-old retired shop assistant, was the first to receive the vaccine, on 8 December 2020 – ‘V-Day’.

Now it’s our turn. As healthcare communicators, our attitudes, along with the quality and accessibility of our work, will undoubtedly affect the uptake of approved COVID-19 vaccines. By the end of 2021, it will be vital for us to look back with pride at the impact we made. But to get there from here involves changing our approach and mind set. Just as researchers have done, we must operate with new thinking. 

The pharmaceutical industry must find its way to being more agile and open to change. Right now, time really matters; this is our moment to maximize adoption of the first COVID-19 vaccinations. Here are touchstones that can guide our way through the coming maelstrom.

  1. Don't assume anything today, because it will all change tomorrow

Usually we draw on data insights from similar historical disease awareness or vaccination campaigns and make reasonable assumptions that inform where we start. But our ‘little black books’ on driving awareness of vaccine-preventable diseases, and HCP vaccine promotion, are no longer fit for purpose. Far too much has changed, because COVID-19 has dominated our media for over a year, and it has forever changed how we work and live. 

As a result, communications around COVID-19 must operate both as a sprint and a marathon, given that the pandemic has exposed many issues: COVID-19 has become, and remains, highly politicized. It has highlighted health inequalities and exposed bias. It has affected us all, leaving everyone feeling frustrated and, at times, overwhelmed.

  1. Start by getting to know large and diverse audiences

Whatever the budget and time lines, we need to do our research and continue to do it. A combination of social listening, influencer mapping, search analysis and quantitative research can help identify the similarities and differences among our audiences. The latest voice-activated and artificial intelligence (AI) can help deliver results within days. Even polls can help build insights that shape our outputs, which can quantify our hypothetical segments. Qualitative research can help ratify individual behavior maps, message cascades, channel strategies and response framework for each priority segment. Target populations should be validating work before anything goes live.

Delivering this level of research while balancing quality, scope, resource and urgency will be the challenge. Research must be iterative and ongoing, using a combination of regular steering groups, advisory panels, social listening and performance analysis. We know that nothing will stand still for long. Continuing to listen will be vital to success.

  1. Work it like a political campaign

None of our ‘key messages’, ‘headlines’ or ‘hero images’ ought to be set in stone. If content is not working or is misunderstood or taken out of context, it needs to fixed, fast. Seek out alternatives. Identify, learn, adapt and advance, but base that change on verified data. Measure only what matters, and only what we are prepared to change.

To avoid being quickly overwhelmed by data, design a framework that allows results to be accessed quickly, interpreted easily and acted upon with purpose. New methods can deliver results within days; even working with something as simple as polls can help to sharpen segments – identifying new ones, mapping adoption and building intelligence on solid, insight-driven foundations.

We live in a world where we are exposed to multiple stories (some factual, many not) on a daily, if not hourly, basis. A world where celebrities, influencers, politicians, even clinicians, will all air their opinions to the public, some of which may incur negative consequences. We must accept that although these individuals are largely not governed by the same pharmaceutical codes of practice, we surely have a responsibility to take action and tackle misinformation. Making sure people have access to the facts is key, whether that means making these facts available separately or in partnership with politicians, influencers or other groups.

  1. Expect the goalposts to change

It is my fervent hope that the way we talk to the UK public about vaccines – in particular, the flu and COVID-19 vaccines – may be changing. We are living in unprecedented times and have an urgent need to adapt. National and governmental bodies are already taking action to increase public understanding of the role of pharma in vaccine development and the value that vaccines bring (e.g., https://www.valuingvaccines.org.uk/). Additionally, medical professional bodies are calling for increased transparency, access, diversity and a greater defense against misinformation.

Given the scale and profile of any global COVID-19 vaccination program, there are likely to be issues along the way. They could be manufacturing delays, transportation problems, or even vaccine-related adverse events, and we need to be as prepared as possible. When problems do arise, we must be equipped and empowered to provide an accessible, ethical, accurate and timely response. We must be equipped to react if, and when, new legislation offers new opportunity.

  1. Reconsider your choices

The WHO summed it up by stating that ‘immunization [in general] is a global health and development success story, saving millions of lives every year’.

Most of us are not qualified clinicians or scientists. But we are experts in healthcare communications, with decades of combined experience and an eye for evidence. We are the people our friends, families and neighbors turn to for medical advice. We need to think carefully about how we respond to a question about COVID-19 vaccination, the science cited and the message given. Our personal views and solicited advice have repercussions.

If we are working on other vaccines, now might be the time to reconsider how the choices we are currently making could affect uptake of our new COVID-19 vaccines. We must build competitive advantage, but first we must work together to rebuild trust in vaccination programs as a whole.

An entirely factual, simple, but bold and consistent (per country) message about vaccine safety, that would be included in all materials distributed by all pharmaceutical companies, would be a great place to start. We also must be careful when explaining the differences between vaccine types. Of course, we want to highlight our competitive advantages to healthcare providers, but we should not be doing this in a way that subtly undermines the competition, or taps into the public’s (largely unfounded) fears. We can be cleverer than that.

Furthermore, COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on gaping inequalities. By being more aware of our conscious and unconscious bias, we, as individuals, can challenge the status quo and drive positive change. That can be the provision of multilingual materials, prioritizing investment in minority groups or simply just a more considered approach to terminology. It is all progress.

If the best way to reach a segment is via a channel not normally used in pharma, now is the time to get brave, test, take calculated risks and relentlessly pursue opportunities that may influence minority and difficult-to-access groups. If that requires a new standard operating procedure, then so be it.

  1. Pace yourself

No individual or team can deliver this alone. We know we are better together, stronger and more motivated, but that is easy to forget when our office is ever-present in our homes. Therefore, let us all commit to championing pragmatism.

Build the right, enthusiastic team. Define roles, rotations, responsibilities and goals. Constantly seek out ways to optimize communication, reviews and meetings. Find a way to take an objective view and see what else might be possible. But make sure you take time to be kind to yourself too and recognize what others may be going through.

While we are still fighting the COVID-19 battle, we don’t exactly know what success might ultimately look like. A range of single-dose effective vaccines? Multiple easy-to-access therapies? Fast and accurate tests? That would be ideal. In the medium term, we are likely to need an annual vaccination and the more people who are protected, the better it will be for the health of our global community.

So, no matter how big or small our roles are in the adoption of global COVID-19 vaccination, we must pledge to go the extra mile, be considerate and grab every opportunity to raise the reputation of the pharmaceutical industry, to champion vaccination and to create a career moment in time that we will forever be proud of.