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AstraZeneca and how to immunize against negative reactions

Published 25 June 2021 in Magazine • 5 min read

A seemingly altruistic venture by the pharma giant badly misfired when reports of potentially fatal blood clots emerged. Tobias Schlager explains what needed to be done to rescue the company from the mire of bad publicity 

AstraZeneca arguably set out to create the one affordable vaccine that could practically be used around the world with low prices and a simplified, less demanding supply chain than other vaccines – a seemingly altruistic venture. And yet, that aspect of development has not dominated headlines or popular perception; instead, in Europe especially, sentiment has been measurably negative. Why did this storyline fail to float?  

When the Obama White House proposed universal health care, Republicans won the communications game by saying the government would be able to “pull the plug on grandma”. Science and facts matter, but communication and reputation are crucial too. The moment the COVID-19 pandemic hit, companies scrambled to develop a vaccine. Vaccines are vital to suppress the pandemic, reach herd immunity and end lockdowns. Among the pioneers in this development have been AstraZeneca (in association with Oxford University), Pfizer (with BionTech), and Moderna. Yet confidence in vaccines has been shaken by press reports about rare but potentially deadly blood clots, especially the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot, leading several countries – for example, Denmark – to suspend use of that company’s vaccine. The studies had not yet conclusively shown causality, but the seeds of doubt had been sown. 

How could vaccination companies have better handled loss of confidence in their vaccinations? To answer this question, we analyzed media reports about AstraZeneca, as well as social media sentiments (the emotions expressed) and the frequency of mentions. The order volume of AstraZeneca by far exceeded that of other manufacturers, while the news articles most commonly picked up Pfizer – but that could be because AstraZeneca was not taken up in the US. Unsurprisingly, people were discussing AstraZeneca more critically on Twitter when reports about the blood clots emerged. Yet, while the reputational implications — such as long-term brand devaluations — are evident, there was no noticeable impact on the company’s share price. This might largely be due to the fact that AstraZeneca had already agreed contracts for its vaccine. With that said, such reports are likely to undermine people’s willingness to use the AstraZeneca/Oxford shot. 

So what led to the backlash against AstraZeneca, and the failure of the public service storyline? And what lessons can other organizations draw from the company’s communications over the past year? 

Big Pharma is generally mistrusted – people do not associate this industry with not-for-profit work. And the perils of the pandemic led to people being less concerned about the fate of the rest of the world than their own community, as we have seen with vaccine nationalism. Meanwhile, social media has become a conduit for vaccine hesitancy. That has forced Big Pharma to step up its efforts to communicate the message that vaccines are safe and effective. But serious blunders alongside the successes have highlighted important lessons in communication which are relevant to leaders in any economic sector. Indeed, frequent communication with stakeholders has become a hallmark of successful leadership through the crisis. 

Firms across sectors that face high-stakes communication should consider the following strategies: evaluate the severity of the issue and proactively and transparently communicate it. Precisely quantifying the size of the issue is key to establishing trust in a vaccine. AstraZeneca was first required to analyze the frequency of blood clots as well as the potentially fatal consequences. 

A related point is the importance of transparency and the proactive communication of science-backed findings. This has become increasingly important in the light of the information overflow during the pandemic. Moderna, which also produces mRNA vaccines against COVID-19, engaged early on in generating press releases with data on 

the vaccine’s safety which were aimed at educating people in the hope that media outlets picked up that information. In addition, they collaborated with multiple media agencies to facilitate broad distribution of the vaccine’s characteristics. Such open and proactive communication likely supported people’s confidence in the company’s vaccine.  

Acknowledge mistakes, but put problems into perspective. When negative consequences become widely known, one common communication strategy is to only highlight the positive outcomes, but this first requires an acknowledgment of the negative impact. A calculation of the risk posed by the COVID-19 shot versus the illness is central to people’s vaccination decision and eventually the reputation of the pharma giants. The science says the severity of the illness may even offset relatively significant side effects induced by the vaccine. Companies would do well to follow the example of the British Medical Journal in its communication of the relative risks. The journal directly opposed the age-dependent risks of getting blood clots from the AstraZeneca vaccine with the risk of COVID-19 infection. BioNTech used a similar but less direct relative risk communication when it published potential side effects of its vaccines in its investor relations.  

Public sentiment measured on Twitter
Volume of buzz around AstraZeneca

Respond quickly to negative media reports. Fast responses can significantly reduce negative consequences. When British Airways faced a data breach in 2018, it responded quickly on social media to customer questions. This is said to have saved the company millions of pounds.  

Social media firestorms are often fueled by a lack of information (or an abundance of misinformation). Vaccine safety is a favorite target of the spreaders of fake news. All vaccine producers should have acted quickly to counter misinformation. These responses need to be carefully framed, consistent and contain evidence backed by science.  

In conclusion, AstraZeneca aimed to produce an affordable COVID-19 vaccine – without 

making profits. Recent reports about the vaccine’s side effects have shed a negative light on the company. In this situation, it is up to the company to efficiently respond, which requires transparent communication, opposing safety concerns to the vaccine’s benefits, and quickly responding to harmful information on social media. 

Authors

Tobias Schlager

Assistant Professor of Marketing at HEC, University of Lausanne

Tobias Schlager is Assistant Professor of Marketing at HEC, University of Lausanne. His research focuses on consumer decision making in computer-mediated environmentswith a focus on the consequences of novel phenomena as gamification, social interactions, and virtual-mixed reality. He has served on the COVID-19 taskforce for the Vaud Canton in Switzerland. 

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