J&J, Pfizer comms chiefs talk vaccine pledge, politics, inequality and getting to a 'better normal'

Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer are pushing back on politics when it comes to science. Both companies’ chief communication officers agreed on that and more in a Tuesday virtual discussion about pharma reputation.

Pfizer’s Sally Susman and J&J’s Micheal Sneed reiterated that key element in the pledge their companies made earlier this month, along with seven other COVID-19 vaccine makers.

Their jobs? Communicating science and safety even in the charged political environment that has developed around vaccine discovery.

“We are moving precisely at the speed of science and pushing back hard on politics,” Susman said during the Columbia Business School event. “Every time a politician of either political party starts talking about vaccine timing ... the confidence numbers plummet. So we need to raise our own voices and try our best to silence those who are hurting the cause of science and truth.”

Sneed agreed: “Ditto to what Sally said, using all available means.”

Almost as if on cue, President Donald Trump mentioned both Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson's vaccine projects during Tuesday night's presidential debate with former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Trump said, in response to Biden's comment that he trusts scientists, "You don't trust Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer?" 

Social media seized on that comment and, much as Susman predicted, most responded with various versions of no, they don't trust pharma.

One good news for drugmakers is that in general—outside of social media, perhaps—they are more trusted than ever these days. Another panelist Tuesday was Rob Jekielek, managing director of The Harris Poll, whose recent surveys show pharma companies are among the more trusted sources of vaccine information, with 70% of people agreeing they're trustworthy on the subject.

RELATED: Pfizer, AZ, Moderna and more pledge not to rush COVID-19 vaccines

Pfizer focuses on another trusted group, family physicians and community healthcare providers, in one of its vaccine communications efforts, Sneed said. Because people turn to those providers first, Pfizer is working to make sure HCPs have the information they need to share.

While the panel discussion centered on COVID-19 and its impact on pharma reputation, the discussion touched on other issues accelerated by the pandemic. Those included racial health inequality, pharma collaborations, and shorter lead times for new therapies.

Even beyond vaccines, the pandemic is spurring pharma to become more diverse, transparent, collaborative and candid with all their stakeholders—and that can help solidify reputation gains and further increase trust, they said.

“Don’t wait for the day for when we’re going to go back to how we were,” Susman said. “Everything is moving forward. Greater transparency will be expected. And faster timelines—there’s no reason we can’t have these kinds of accelerated timelines in other circumstances.”

To those expectations, Sneed added working across industries and public health: “People have seen the value of greater collaboration and having real partners across the spectrum.”

RELATED: Pharma's reputation gains persist through pandemic, bolstered by vaccine makers' pledge: Harris Poll

Just don't call it the “new normal.” Sneed pointed out what was “normal” for many people of color and others who are healthcare disadvantaged hasn't been fair or healthy. His preferred phrase for the future is a “better normal.”

Pharma companies need to do their part by pushing for real action in clinical trial diversity and encouraging people of color to join the medical field, life sciences and pharma.

“There is no path to racial justice in America without justice in healthcare,” Sneed said.