Careful, pharma: Don't pile on the COVID-19 messaging, McCann Health global chief says

McCann Health advises clients to stick to relevant and transparent communications around COVID-19. (Pixabay)

McCann Health global CEO John Cahill returned to Hong Kong two weeks ago, just before U.S. airlines shut down most long-haul flights. He’s been working from home since then, talking to clients and McCann employees about the COVID-19 outbreak and what it means for pharma and health communications for both the short and long term.

One main piece of advice? While it’s important and valued that many pharma companies are working overtime to find therapies and develop vaccines for clinical trials, it’s still not an open invitation for pharma to pile on with COVID-19 messaging.

Drugmakers need to be careful to avoid putting out information that just adds noise to the marketplace, and more importantly, avoid messages that might appear to try to take advantage of the crisis, Cahill said.

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He pointed to Pfizer chief medical officer Mace Rothenberg’s social media video series as a good example of a pharma company putting out balanced, factual information that adds value. (Pfizer is a McCann Health client, although the agency was not involved in the creation of the social media series.)

“This is really where the pharmaceutical industry can make a big impact. Amidst all of the social media clutter, these companies have a strong authoritative voice,” he said. “Timing, though, is critical.”

That means sticking to communicating as needed or when real news happens. For instance, as treatments and vaccines begin to reach development milestones, such as new trials, that would be a time for pharma to speak up alongside others working with them.

“When there is something to say, say it loud and clear, and say it in partnership,” Cahill said.

Other advice McCann Health is giving to clients, along with taking responsibility and being transparent and clear, is to continue the pivot to digital communications. One of the outcomes of the COVID-19 outbreak will be a better understanding of data-led health marketing, Cahill said. Medical communications people inside McCann, for instance, are working on ways to streamline information to healthcare providers so they can be put it into action more quickly.

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On another front, McCann Global Health, the McCann Health division focused on public health, was tapped by the United Nations to help with preparedness communications. Its focus is on women and children as part of that program.

As his home city Hong Kong begins a kind of “assuming recovery” phase, Cahill sees some reason for guarded optimism.

“The world right now is at its most ingenious self,” he said. “We can see innovations coming out all over the place from retail, the automotive industry and many others. I don’t want to sound overly optimistic, but I think serious learnings will be made, and we will come out of this with new ways to communicate both as brands and as people-to-people.”