Pharma PR in a pandemic? Speed, clarity and accuracy count during unintentional stress test

Want to put pharma and healthcare public relations teams to the test? How about a global pandemic?

The all-encompassing COVID-19 crisis has stress-tested pharma PR and communications teams in ways they couldn’t have anticipated The good news for agencies that have made it through the gauntlet is that many are hiring new talent, expanding skill sets and growing new business.

For Evoke Kyne, it’s meant 20 new hires and promotions in the past few months across its specialty creative, digital, social and earned media teams. It also added double-digit growth to top-line revenues in 2020.

“In a time last year when many people couldn’t find work, our category found an abundance of needs and challenges that our clients needed,” Maryellen Royle, partner and global head of operations, said. “Racing to make news announcements and doing everything with less time and with less money, our team—like many PR and comms teams—was in a good position to deliver.”

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In the pandemic spotlight, pharma companies turned to PR communications to get out day-to-day operation messages about drug supplies, manufacturing issues and questions, and continuing patient support. Along with those were also bigger messages about financial support, public health reminders about wearing masks and vaccine development as the world sat on edge.

Evoke Kyne's client list includes several key pandemic players including Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen, AstraZeneca and the Pandemic Action Network.

The advantages of public relations vehicles, such as social media and news releases, over traditional TV and print advertising during this time have been both speed and expense. Educational messages, for instance, about mask-wearing and building vaccine trust can be delivered quickly at a low cost in digital, social and PR news channels.

“I know the advertising side of the business is doing a lot, but thinking about the world of PR comms, we are an efficient bunch because we’re used to turning things around way faster than a large advertising agency,” Royle said.

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It’s been a slightly heady time for the pharma industry—when broad reputation gains and appreciation for speedy COVID-19 vaccine and treatment development have replaced what had been a fraught decade dominated by pricing wars and opioid scandal headlines.

However, the big question is whether the industry can hold onto its halo. It's possible, of course, but also likely that public relations and communications will play a role keeping it in place.

“As healthcare communicators, our goal has always been on shining a light on the wonderful things that science does and the process and the rigor involved,” Royle said. “In the future, post-pandemic, I do think that people will continue to believe the science messages and think of the industry in a better way.”