Communicating on COVID: Lessons from Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Companies

Few companies were thrown into the spotlight during the pandemic like those in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Both play the leading role in creating treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19—things that Americans truly care about.

PhRMA is very much having a moment right now,” said Ellen Gerstein, head of content and employee engagement at Pfizer. “They are looking to us for answers.”

The situation poses an important question: what should an organization do from an advocacy and communications standpoint when its industry receives national attention?

That was the topic of Phone2Action’s recent webinar, Managing the Spotlight: How Biotechs and Pharmaceuticals Communicate on COVID-19. Gerstein was joined by Amy Goodrich, senior director of external activation at Pfizer; Joe Hansen, managing director of digital communications and branding at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO); and Jon Tripp, senior director of public affairs at PhRMA.

“When it comes to the pharmaceutical industry, there are a lot of eyeballs on us,” Tripp said. “We have an opportunity and we’ve got to make the best of it.”

Hansen points to a poll by Harris Insight and Analytics in mid-April showing that 40 percent of Americans now have a more positive view of the pharmaceutical industry than they did before the pandemic began, an amazing turnaround for an industry that has sometimes struggled with perception issues.

“It’s amazing that we’ve been able to see the industry perception shift in such a short period of time,” Hansen said.

To hear more about how pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are reacting, listen to the webinar, Managing the Spotlight.


‘You’ve Got to Start Now’

If the question is how to react under the spotlight, the answer from Pfizer, PhRMA and BIO was to communicate thoughtfully and often.

It’s a noisy environment, with the White House, members of Congress, governors and even mayors speaking out regularly. But the industries played to their strengths.

“From the beginning, our goal has been to be seen as a trusted source of information,” Gerstein said. “Not only have our followers felt we lived up to that, but our employees have been a big part of that.”

For companies that want to capitalize on national attention, employees often play a major role. It was a point Tripp made when asked to advise pharmaceutical companies that may not be active in advocacy and communications.

“You’ve got to start now,” he said. “If you are looking for a softball way to start, start with your employees. Start internally and look for ways to build on that.”

Tripp noted that the pharmaceutical industry has almost 850,000 employees. BIO counts roughly 1.7 million employees in the broader biotechnology industry). “If we could have every one of them as an advocate…,” he said.

The panel agreed that the two industries and all of their members should be communicating right now. As Goodrich put it, “When one company succeeds, we all succeed.”

Authentic Voices

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, both the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries have done a good job of putting authentic employees voices out front.

BIO released a video app to its members, allowing them to shoot short videos at their facilities, which can be edited later into authentic, usable content. Pfizer revised its policy on social sharing and then began training its workforce to use social media. It released short videos in which the company’s chief medical officer and chief patient officer spoke directly to the audience.

“I’m glad we are getting to show the Pfizer that I’ve seen every day since I joined this company,” Gerstin said, adding later that, “Our goal was to give our employees a voice in the conversation. They very much want to advocate for the work that takes place at Pfizer but didn’t really have a means to do it.”

Of course, the panel also said that building a broader audience is important. In the early days of the pandemic, Pfizer released a five-point plan detailing how it would address vaccines and treatments. It also released a petition that drew more than 15,000 supporters—more than the company gained all last year, Goodrich said.

“If you don’t have a digital program, you are leaving a whole lot of people behind,” she said.

Now, the company, and many in the industry, are working hard to provide content these new supporters want to consume, with an eye toward days when they will provide more than just information on COVID-19.

As Goodrich put it, “Now that we have these people in our community and they are interested, we’ve got to keep talking to them.”

To hear more about how pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are reacting, listen to the webinar, Managing the Spotlight.

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