As the world came to a standstill, the oft-vilified pharma companies suddenly emerged as heroes, and the CEOs of the main COVID-19 vaccine makers—Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson—became household names. For the first time in modern history, the public had a universal, tangible connection to the work pharma does to improve people’s lives.
The pharma industry and its executive leadership should embrace this reset moment and continue to invest in building trust—through consistent communication, transparency, and understanding—with its varied audiences (the public, patient communities, health care professionals, and collaborators).
Here are two key aspects of pharma’s pandemic response that industry leaders can leverage to build trust and deepen the public’s understanding of drug makers’ positive impact.
Tell the story of innovation
Pharma’s reputation boost during the pandemic isn’t surprising. But the size of that boost was significant: The public’s goodwill matched that of consumers‘ longtime darling, the tech industry. In an April 2020 Harris Poll, 40% of Americans said they had a more favorable view of the pharma industry than before the COVID-19 pandemic began, putting pharma on par with tech (which 41% of consumers cited positively).
The biggest brands, like Apple and Amazon, successfully lean into their identities as cutting-edge innovators that enrich people’s lives. During COVID-19, Pfizer, BioNTech, and Moderna took a big gamble on developing untested mRNA technology—and came out on top by delivering highly effective and safe vaccines at record-breaking speed. As the world witnessed this success story, they saw pharma—perhaps for the first time—as drivers of innovation.
I recently interviewed a systems immunologist at a big pharma company. Now working in one of the most groundbreaking fields, he had previously spent years as a traditional lab scientist. With a glint in his eye, he explained how the most transformational insights in biology and medicine today are happening not in the lab, but through big data and technological advances. This is an important narrative that pharma needs to share with the public and potential talent.
From next-generation sequencing to predictive AI that speeds up drug discovery, there is no shortage of compelling innovation stories happening in the industry. As pharma leaders increase their focus on the tech narrative, they need to break down the complexity and show how these innovations impact people’s daily lives.
Humanize the brand and educate the public
Developing drugs and vaccines is a complex, expensive, and risky process that general audiences have historically had little incentive to take interest in. But during the pandemic, science suddenly became relevant and cool. People without PhDs were pondering the cold chain, herd immunity, and how mRNA works.
The pandemic also brought pharma execs into the spotlight—most notably, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, who was a regular on news shows as he clearly communicated Pfizer’s and BioNTech’s approach to science and clinical trials. Other leaders including Kathrin Jansen, who headed up Pfizer’s vaccine R&D, and Mike McDermott, Pfizer’s head of global supply, were also consistent and regular public voices who helped build trust.
Pharma will continue to deliver breakthrough medicines and vaccines, many of which are based on novel biotech. At the same time, public misinformation will likely proliferate even more easily in the future. So it’s imperative that pharma and the scientific community educate the public on the science of their medicines to help individuals make informed health care decisions.
Pharma companies can build on the foundation these communications strategies have established and make sure that everyone is included in their exciting journey of discovery.