Preventive medicine could have spared Pfizer its PR stumble

November 19, 2020

On November 9th, Pfizer and German company BioNTech announced their COVID-19 vaccine candidate was found so far to be more than 90 percent effective in preventing infection, making it the frontrunner in the global vaccine race. Pfizer’s stock price jumped nearly eight percent, hitting a 52-week high. (Moderna has since revealed their vaccine findings, and Pfizer has now announced complete results from its vaccine trial.)

Should have been a slam dunk, right?

But as seasoned PR professionals know, very few announcements of this scale and scope come without challenges. It seems Pfizer didn’t follow the adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  

You own your organization’s narrative. Relinquishing that ownership leaves your organization – its reputation; brand; relationship to customers, employees, partners, investors, and other stakeholders; and ultimately its bottom line – vulnerable.

HOW IT PLAYED OUT

  • Monday, November 9: Pfizer and BioNTech announce their COVID-19 vaccine candidate had so far proven to be 90 percent effective in preventing infection. No mention of any government participation.
  • Later that same morning: A New York Times article is published quoting Kathrin Jansen, a senior vice president and the head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer: “We were never part of the Warp Speed,” she said. “We have never taken any money from the U.S. government, or from anyone.” (Operation Warp Speed is the federal program to accelerate the development, manufacture, and distribution of COVID-19 countermeasures.)
  • Shortly thereafter: Questions arise about the company’s participation in Operation Warp Speed with references to Pfizer’s July 22 announcement stating they had entered into an agreement with the U.S. government to meet Operation Warp Speed’s goal to begin delivery of 300 million doses of a vaccine in 2021.
  • Later that afternoon: The same Pfizer spokesperson provides a second clarifying statement in reply to media inquiries: “Pfizer is one of various vaccine manufacturers participating in Operation Warp Speed as a supplier. While Pfizer did reach an advanced purchase agreement with the U.S. government, the company did not accept BARDA funds for the research and development process. All the investment for R&D was made by Pfizer at risk.” 
  • Friday, November 13: During an update on Operation Warp Speed, President Trump states: “Pfizer said it wasn’t part of Warp Speed, but that turned out to be an unfortunate misrepresentation.”

Perhaps Pfizer thought it could steer clear of politics by not mentioning its arrangement with the U.S. government or Operation Warp Speed. Instead, the company found itself right in the middle of political turmoil that sent them scrambling to set the story straight.

THE LESSON

The number one goal of any communications strategy is to control your story. You own your organization’s narrative. Relinquishing that ownership leaves your organization – its reputation; brand; relationship to customers, employees, partners, investors, and other stakeholders; and ultimately its bottom line – vulnerable.

Pfizer’s November 9th vaccine announcement should have been a monumental score with a front-page, above-the-fold victory lap. But the company allowed others to control the story, thus creating a tide of confusion and potential distrust. The misstatements and ensuing clarification and clean-up could have been avoided by embracing strategic communications best practices.

BEST PRACTICES FOR MAKING MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENTS

How can you prevent business impact from media challenges, political encounters, and public confusion (or worse) when making a major public announcement? The best way to inoculate your company’s brand against potential PR challenges is to anticipate those challenges and either neutralize them in advance or be prepared to respond to them when they come. The aim is to avoid surprises.

Pre-game due diligence

Troubleshoot by anticipating where your announcement might take hits. Then try to answer questions before they are asked.

  • Anticipate reactions and fortify your story. Are there audiences that might question your claims? Or take credit for your news? Or simply not understand how your news applies to them? Is there potential for misunderstanding? Might someone else want (or even deserve) credit in your story? Can you expect them to make a public response to your news? Will it be positive?
  • Be consistent or justify why your story has changed. What have you previously said in relation to this news? Is your announcement consistent with past statements? If something has changed, do you need to explain it or clarify?
  • Consider all stakeholder groups and how they might react to your news. Who has a stake in your announcement? Customers, employees, investors, analysts, partners, board leadership, media, regulators, public officials, volunteers, the larger community? What is their interest, and how might they respond (publicly or privately)?
  • Understand the landscape and prepare accordingly. No announcement is made in a vacuum. In this case, the relevant context was a global pandemic run amuck; lives and livelihoods at stake; a growing number of people hesitant to take/trust vaccines; an incredibly high-stakes election; a presidential administration that sees its success hitched, in part, to an achievement like the one being announced; and polarized political foes using such news to “own” the other side.
  • Preparation is the foundation of disciplined messaging. It eliminates potential confusion and shores up vulnerabilities. Who is the best person to deliver your message and follow-up communications? This may be different for different stakeholder audiences. Or different for the original message versus the follow-up. Either way, identify and prepare your spokespeople in advance with topline messaging, proof points, and responses to potential questions, thus assuring a disciplined, consistent message.

Neutralize challenges by addressing anticipated issues in your announcement and prepare your spokespeople with well crafted answers to anticipated follow-up questions. In this case, the media/public/political response was entirely predictable. Pfizer’s second clarification finally got it right, but by then, the story was already out of their hands. Had they simply included those four sentences in the November 9th announcement, most, or all, of the resulting scramble could have been avoided.

CONSEQUENCES OF RUSHING THROUGH PREPARATION  

Skipping any of the above steps can set your company up for disaster.

  • Trying to avoid politics without preparing for predictable fallout (and lack of awareness of the company’s own previous press release) can drop your organization right in the middle of a political firestorm.
  • Vagueness or missing information may be interpreted as a political tactic or intentionally misleading, potentially reducing trust in the brand. 
  • Anything that can be understood as lack of footing has the potential to cause major investor (and stock price) concerns.
  • Under some circumstances, a fumbled public announcement can even land your organization in legal or regulatory hot water.
  • Giving up control of your story leaves your organization – its reputation; brand; relationship to customers, employees, partners, investors, and other stakeholders; and ultimately your bottom line – vulnerable.
  • At the very least, you can be sure Pfizer suffered a solid day or more of unexpected churning by multiple internal teams – communications, investor relations, executive, public affairs, legal, and maybe others – to make sure they salvaged what should have been an announcement with nothing but upside.

CONTROL YOUR STORY

Pharmaceutical companies make incremental progress announcements all the time. Most don’t make the news. But this was not your run-of-the-mill drug announcement. This was the first major vaccine announcement since the entire world became paralyzed by the threat of COVID-19. Pfizer should have been taking a victory lap on November 9th. Instead, they were scrambling to regain control of the narrative and minimize impact to their reputation and their business.

Perception and reputation impact your bottom line. Control your story.

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