Covid-19: What It Means For Healthcare PR


Healthcare communications leaders discuss the priorities, challenges and opportunities for the sector, from industry collaboration and the reputation of big pharma, to the anti-vax debate.

In the latest in PRovoke's series of articles on the impact of Covid-19 on various practice areas and industry sectors, they interviewed healthcare communications specialists to get a sense of how they are responding to the pandemic.

Participating in the discussion:
• David Kyne, CEO, Evoke Kyne
• Wendy Lund, CEO, GCI Health
• Alex Davies, senior director, Hanover Health
• Catherine Keddie, MD of health, BCW London
• Annalise Coady, EMEA president, W2O Group
• Paul Jarman, MD, Road Communications
• Sabrina Gomersall, head of client services, 90Ten

Maja Pawinska Sims: What has been the pandemic’s impact on the healthcare sector so far?

David Kyne: The pandemic has had a profound impact on the healthcare sector. It has exposed the fragility of healthcare systems around the world, the vast range in which different societies are equipped to respond and the lack of preparedness for pandemics globally. Hospitals are stretched beyond capacity, healthcare workers are unable to access the proper personal protective equipment, and people are generally unable to access medical care. At the same time, we’re seeing great innovation from the healthcare sector, including widespread use of telehealth and drive-through testing, as well as quick action and strong collaboration by pharma and biotech companies who are accelerating R&D for COVID-19 treatments and vaccines and making major philanthropic commitments to combat the pandemic. I’ve been blown away by the speed in which collaborations are formed, contracts are signed, clinical trial protocols are developed – it’s been inspiring to see what’s possible. Never before have we seen the entire global healthcare ecosystem come together to fight a single threat.

Wendy Lund: The pandemic’s impact has been all encompassing. The quest for diagnostics, treatments and vaccines is 24/7. The focus on chronic disease, underlying conditions and elder health is critical. Thankfully, the FDA has said it will not take their focus off the treatment of cancer, where we have made such tremendous strides over the last decade. From a communications perspective, it has been important to relook at our programming to make sure it is appropriate and sensitive. This is an important moment for the healthcare sector to be recognized and to build trust among key audiences in ways not possible before. We are constantly identifying new and innovative ways to support our clients and help ensure that the important work they do across the healthcare spectrum is reaching the people who can most benefit from it. I expect that a new way of thinking and acting will take hold because our industry will be forever transformed.

Alex Davies: Perhaps unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 outbreak has had a huge impact on the priorities, activity and story of the healthcare sector. Broadly, I think there are two types of response from players in healthcare: the first is those who have actively got involved in the fight against the virus, whether trying to find a treatment or a test. The second is those who, while not at the frontline, are doing everything they can to help. We have seen many businesses committing people, resources and money to help health services worldwide tackle the outbreak.

Catherine Keddie: The impact of COVID-19 on the healthcare sector has been far-reaching. It has critically underlined the vulnerability and fragility of health systems across the globe and has offered us a new perspective on the definition of the term “global superpower”. When we see the likes of Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan and South Korea responding so quickly and effectively to the public health threat of COVID-19 in comparison to the UK and US, it is clear that bigger is not always better. Secondly, we have seen COVID-19 focus minds and attention back onto science, scientific discovery and purposeful innovation, over profit. The usual barriers that surround competition, dictate siloed roles and responsibilities and dilute genuine partnership have dissolved for now. There has been an unprecedented level of collaboration between governments, scientists and industry to accelerate the development of interventions (vaccines and treatments) and pave the way for access as soon as they are available. Thirdly, the immediate threat that COVID-19 has placed on Global public health has diverted attention, resources and technological advancement away from other important aspects of healthcare e.g. chronic diseases, which continue to pose a slow but serious threat to global public health and cannot be forgotten.

Annalise Coady: The biggest impact I’ve witnessed is the collaboration between healthcare companies for the greater good. We’re witnessing many businesses willing to work with competitors as strategic partners to counter COVID-19. Whether that’s creating kits to test for the virus, trialling drugs more quickly, sharing data to tackle misinformation or joining forces to create a vaccine, all involved are taking positive steps towards developing solutions in collaboration. As recent as this week we’ve seen GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Sanofi announce partnering together to create a vaccine for COVID-19. This is one of seven partnerships that GSK has undertaken and is representative of the wider industry. In a bid to help alleviate medical shortages around the country, we’re also seeing a lot of companies outside the industry step up into the healthcare space. Whether that’s companies like LVMH producing hand sanitiser or the consortium of engineering companies come together to mass produce ventilators for the UK. Right now, everyone is in the business of health.

Paul Jarman: From an agency perspective the impact has probably been consistent with other sectors in that some clients are essential and involved in this new reality, and others have all but been shut down. Contrast clients in infection control working like crazy versus those involved with elective surgery. We have had to negotiate new ways of working and reimbursement to suit each situation.

Sabrina Gomersall: A global crisis of the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic has inevitably had a softening effect on healthcare communications budgets across the industry, in part due to the disruption to medical events and conferences in our 2020 calendars. But pharma is an agile and resilient sector whose lifeblood is scientific dialogue, so we have adapted to the new normal of virtual discussion and collaboration. Important congresses such the world’s largest cancer conference, ASCO, have already seamlessly shifted to take place in cyberspace and colleagues across the industry have embraced multiple technologies to take planned activities online. Key to our response as a healthcare comms and behavioural science consultancy has been to let go of what we can’t control and give each other time and space to adapt to new ways of delivering projects in this new world.

MPS: What have been the priorities in terms of communications strategy and implementation these past few weeks?

WL: As healthcare communicators, we need to help consumers, patients and HCPs find the most credible and helpful information to support their intensified needs and mitigate a lot of the confusion they are experiencing. Amid all of the changes we’ve needed to make in response to this pandemic, we have a responsibility to continue meeting the needs of these stakeholders and show empathy, gratitude and support through our COVID-19-related efforts, implement and modify our programming and share new strategies for medical meetings that are going virtual and engage media that are covering this 24/7. It’s against this backdrop that we’re working more closely than ever with our clients to establish priorities and develop plans that will help them reach their audiences while, at the same time, not coming off as opportunistic or overly promotional in ways that could negatively impact their business or reputation.

DK: We have been working with many of our clients to reprioritise and shift their communication strategies to focus on the pandemic response. For example, biopharma clients have created and announced significant charitable programmes and partnerships to provide funds, goods and services to the help with the relief effort. Additionally, we’re supporting companies that are now studying their existing medicines as potential treatments for COVID-19 and need to issue announcements at breakneck speeds. All conferences have been canceled or gone virtual, and clients are looking for new strategies to engage with patients, advocacy groups, the medical community and media. Some of our non-profit clients have had to cancel their existing in-person programmes and shift resources and staff to developing virtual programmes to communicate with their key audiences about COVID-19. Internal communication has also become increasingly important across the board, as so many are working remotely.

CK: Our healthcare sector clients have had to focus on reassessing, and sometimes completely re-thinking communications strategies and plans in light of the immediate impact of COVID-19. Specifically, it has been critical to fully understand the mood, needs and sensitivities of key audiences and to reassess what, how and when to communicate with them. With this insight it is vital that any proactive communications or activities are truly relevant to the here and now, and not at all opportunistic based on the current reality. The temptation at the beginning of the pandemic was just to “go virtual” with everything, but following how the situation is unfolding and staying close to audiences and their needs has challenged this approach, forcing us to work smartly and strategically to re-think what is possible, what will be meaningful and what is right to do.

AD: In times of crisis, there are certain rules around how to communicate effectively. You need to be clear, quick and consistent – this is particularly true of governments all over the world who are asking millions of people to fundamentally put their lives on hold. We’ve seen mixed results, with some doing it well and others less so. For businesses, the same rules apply – be clear with your stakeholders on what you’re doing to manage the situation, get your messaging out as quickly as you feasibly can and for goodness sake, be consistent.

AC: Priorities have focused on the impact and action organizations are taking to tackle the pandemic in relationship to their key stakeholders. What we’re beginning to see is a switch to organizations communicating how they will support their communities as we come out of the ‘lockdown’. This pivot takes the focus from the wider global pandemic to the effects it is causing at a local level. The most successful communications strategies have been those which put sensitivity, empathy and action at the centre of their approach. As we move into the ‘new normal’ the organizations that maintain a high level of relevance with their key stakeholders are constantly mindful of closing the gap between what they want to say and what their stakeholders want to hear. Never has that been more critical than during this pandemic.

PJ: Not selling but supporting. We are in this together and both patient and professional audiences need the industry’s empathy and support. Most have got the tone just right.

SG: Our priority in the past few weeks has been to acknowledge that many of the people who rely on our clients’ medicines and vaccines are some of the most vulnerable. Patients with serious, ongoing health conditions who will unfortunately be facing additional difficulties accessing care and treatment during the pandemic. Physicians too, are working unprecedented hours to safeguard the health of the most vulnerable in society often in difficult circumstances, and we must be mindful of preserving their time and energy. Our advice to clients has been that actions always speak louder than words and at such a worrying time for so many people it is even more important than ever to maintain clear and responsive communications channels and remain human and humane in word and deed. It goes without saying that a global public health crisis is not the time for any industry communications to appear self-serving and the objectives of any activities must be carefully weighed in the era of information overload, which we are all experiencing.

MPS: What will be the major communications challenges and opportunities as the pandemic plays out around the world, from a healthcare PR perspective?

AC: One of the biggest communication challenges from the pandemic will be transitioning into a post-COVID-19 world and how companies adjust their plans accordingly. We’ve already seen organizations that act with the mindset of a global citizen receiving a more positive response to their actions. There will be potentially be a more hyper-focused response around local communities, where people’s worlds have effectively shrunk, and their immediate priorities have changed. Those organizations that have taken global-first approaches to their response but followed up with local support in the countries they operate will continue to earn praise for their actions. The other challenge is controlling the accuracy of information. Communications teams will need to be proactive and reactive to shape the story around their business and to protect its reputation. And also, once people have time to reflect, there may be more concern about data privacy.

DK: One of the challenges is that there is so much noise that it’s hard to break through. In the age of social media, misinformation and rumours circulate faster than ever before. We must adopt new behaviours to combat the “COVID-19 infodemic.” As communicators, it is imperative that we link back to credible government and sanctioned health professional guidance and limit commentary that may be debated or contradict CDC, WHO, etc. Given the different guidance and impact of the pandemic regionally, it is important to be up-to-speed with local official guidance. In other words, we need to set our north star to the science at hand. Ground everything in reliable, credible data that is easily understandable to a wide swath of education levels, languages and cultural nuances. Messages should also be delivered by credible spokespersons who have authority on the subject. However, we also must be aware that the messages will evolve and the guidance is fluid rather than static. Behaviour change communications has a key role to play in the response to this pandemic. There’s also an opportunity for organisations across sectors to look for ways to pool resources to disseminate and amplify accurate information, including rapidly-evolving guidance from health authorities about things like physical distancing and mask-wearing. In terms of how companies are working and communicating during the pandemic, there are major opportunities to try out innovative technologies and virtual formats that very few would have thought about before and which could have longer-term positive impacts.

WL: The largest communications challenge (and opportunity) centers around unpredictability and being able to flexibly plan and work in a completely fluid environment. Another challenge is related to media relations and overcoming the challenge that media are almost exclusively focused on covering the various aspects of COVID-19. We understand and respect that journalists are under extreme pressure – compounded by the fact that medical meetings and conferences are going virtual, if they’re not canceled outright – and we’re doing everything we can to be sensitive to this and make sure we’re not doing anything to add to that. We also recognize that more reporters who don’t typically cover healthcare are being tasked with covering COVID-19-related news. In today’s fast-paced news cycle, we, as communicators, need to make sure the information we are sharing is crafted in a way that reporters can interject perspectives and information into their coverage with ease. In this environment of no meetings, limited media and other new ways of working, digital communications has taken on a whole new meaning.

CK: COVID-19 has forced governments to prioritise health above economic concerns, which has exponentially increased personal, professional and societal interest and engagement in health which is good for healthcare PR. The pandemic has also reignited respect and trust in scientific experts and expertise, that provides the essential trusted knowledge and advocacy for moving people to think, feel and do things differently with respect to their health. On the downside though, the volume of information (much of which is fake and inaccurate) in circulation about COVID-19 is likely to impact people’s sensitivity and trust in healthcare content in the future, and will impact how much harder will we have to work to be heard and gain traction and trust. The long term and enduring impact COVID-19 may have on the healthcare sector, and how it should communicate in the future is unknown. We don’t yet know what the ‘new normal’ will look like, but the healthcare PR industry has an incredible resilience to adapt to change and uncertainty, and to anticipate the direction of travel.

PJ: Inertia will be a major issue. When will be the right time to move from a war footing to a more commercial position? It’s interesting to now see the debate now playing out that’s trying to balance the economic damage versus an acceptable or non-acceptable rate of death and recovery time. Timings and sentiment may well vary considerably between territories as political persuasion determines.

SG: Fake news about the virus can be as dangerous as the virus itself, and this is an evolving challenge serious enough that the WHO has labelled the phenomenon an ‘infodemic’. COVID-19 is a human disease with very human consequences but the public is finding it hard to relate to the cold, hard facts communicated by the scientific experts. They are searching for sources of information that communicate in a human, relatable way. This is beautifully illustrated in the example of the WHO partnering with TikTok influencers to tackle the spread of fake stories. The account achieved overnight success and has become a crucial influence in the war against fake news. As an industry that prides itself on the high standards of communicating accurate information about life changing and life-saving treatments, this is an important opportunity to demonstrate our value at the forefront of the fight against misinformation and as a reliable source of health information.

AD: Despite the obvious tragic implications of a pandemic, this moment does represent an opportunity for the healthcare sector to show just how valuable it can be to patients, clinicians and society at large. For decades now, the pharmaceutical industry has complained that it suffers from a reputation problem – now is the moment to change that. Healthcare businesses should be setting up, not sitting this out. Reputations are made when times are tough, not when things are simple. Stakeholders will remember those who stood up and played their part, and they’ll equally remember those who did nothing. If now isn’t the time to tell our story and show our value, when is?

MPS: How will this impact the industry and communications in the long-term, for instance in terms of the reputation of pharmaceutical companies, the anti-vax debate, and the role of the private sector in public health crises?

AD: We may well see an increase in the level of interest in what the pharmaceutical industry does and how it makes medicines. Similarly, we may well see a growing call for the use of artificial intelligence to speed-up the development of new treatments and cures. More specifically though, I think we will see an increased push to get long-term health conditions better recognition. The words “underlying health condition” have never had such prominence, and I suspect that patients will be rightly demanding the best care possible to ensure that they are never at risk should we be in a similar situation again.

WL: From a reputational perspective, the pharmaceutical industry has been near the bottom of the list for some time, despite the incredible advances we’ve seen over the last decade, and even just the last few years. But the role of the healthcare industry in meeting the challenges of COVID-19 cannot be overstated. These companies are taking the lead, and working side-by-side in many cases, to develop the treatments and vaccines that will help us re-emerge from this global public health concern. As communicators, it’s our role to keep finding ways to let the world know about the important work our clients are doing and to pivot away from the negative perceptions and noise that gets in the way. As the industry continues to change the way healthcare professionals and patients perceive and approach health, we are at an important tipping point to shift these perceptions and focus on what’s really important.

AC: There will be a shift in focus on healthcare priorities to the role of public health, with an even greater appreciation of investment, vaccine development, anti-infective diseases, while there will still be a strong focus on oncology and neuroscience. The requirement for testing, and in some countries the lack of it, has highlighted the need for a strong diagnostics industry as part of rapid treatment and prevention of diseases. After the Ebola crisis was over, multiple other health conditions emerged from it: untreated severe malaria and lack of basic obstetric care are often cited as two areas of particular concern. It remains to be seen in the developed world what the wider healthcare implications will be, for instance how many cancer diagnoses will be missed is one area that oncologists have highlighted. Value and pricing conversations will come back to the fore but based on people’s very personal experience, science and healthcare will be able to help solve COVID-19, the issues around it and our future responses to pandemics and global healthcare issues.
SG: There is strength in accepting that our key audiences of doctors, patients, health policy makers and the general public as a whole will have permanently changed their attitudes to the risks posed by infectious diseases. We have all now seen exactly what the world looks like without a vaccine for a contagious infection and have developed a newfound understanding of the need to protect the vulnerable. Consequently, the anti-vax debate and value of preventative medicine in general is unlikely to seem much of a debate any longer. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, we are seeing companies respond in a way that goes beyond brand objectives and connects to a larger social purpose. For the pharmaceutical industry, companies are making unprecedented collaborations, shifts in R&D focus and donations of vital equipment, as well as medical personnel, to help contribute to the solution – the industry is pitching in to do all it can, where it can. In the long-term, it may contrite to changing perceptions and building greater trust.

DK: I believe it could have a major impact on the anti-vax movement. Before COVID-19, it was easy for people to question vaccines for prevention of diseases they had never experienced, like measles. Now, I hope everyone is realising how critical vaccines are to save lives and allow society as we know it to continue functioning. I also believe this will shine a spotlight on the fact that the public sector can’t take on challenges of this magnitude alone and create a renewed respect for the pharmaceutical industry’s role in tackling disease. The expertise and resources of the private sector have played a major role in the COVID-19 response, and the sector can often mobilise much more quickly. In fact, Evoke KYNE was founded on the premise that public-private partnerships are critical to tackling major health challenges. I hope there is a renewed interest and commitment to partnerships of this kind moving forward and we all need to realise that governments, global health bodies, health systems and pharmaceuticals companies alone cannot combat a pandemic, but working together is the best way for us to make really progress against a threat like COVID-19.

CK: From an anti-vax perspective, one would logically assume that COVID-19 would be persuasive in educating anti-vaxxers about the need for and benefit of vaccines. However the reality is that vaccine hesitancy cannot be combatted by education or data alone. We already know that the anti-vax movement hasn’t changed its views despite the resurgence of measles back into the community which is actually more infectious and with a not too dissimilar mortality to COVID-19. There has been a major surge in online conversation scaremongering government and industry conspiracies around the origin of COVID-19, and much of these conversations are being supported by the anti-vax lobby, believing it adds to the weight of their argument in some way. Mistrust of governments and pharmaceutical companies will continue, so beyond education, healthcare communications needs to uncover and understand the real fears (however irrational) of the anti-vax movement, and seek to allay those fears and move people with compassionate communication and engagement.

PJ: I think healthcare will be seen as a more complex ecosystem involving not just pharmaceutical companies but also medical technology, big data, social care, public health, even ancillary services such as border control. The private sector has stepped up and shown its value producing ventilators, test kits and protective equipment in quick time. But above all we see the importance of collaboration between public health, academia, pharma and medtech companies; this is how we will quickly solve problems and importantly find an effective vaccine. As to the anti-vaxxers, we’ve seen predictable pockets of conspiracy theory and idiot science pop up. My hope is that having lived through this pandemic the public will be more aware than ever of the benefits of vaccines, and be trusted to make the right decision for themselves and their communities.