Time to shine? Pharmas aim to parlay pandemic goodwill into long-term reputation gains

The coronavirus pandemic threw pharma companies into the spotlight—whether they wanted it or not.

But what began as a rush to COVID-19 vaccine and treatment research is now morphing into long-term business strategies—and changes in the way pharma companies manage their corporate image, says one reputation expert.

There’s been a noticeable uptick in interest from pharma and biotech companies around reputation management, Michael Grela, Evoke KYNE’s new head of reputation and social impact, said in a recent interview.

While the interest isn’t solely because of the pandemic, the COVID-19 crisis has provided a “unique opportunity to take the goodwill that has come from the work being done on the vaccine and keep the momentum going,” he said.

Pharma companies, which had been longtime bottom-dwellers in consumer-perception polls, are now looking to actively leverage the positive perceptions unleashed by the industry's pandemic response.

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Contributing to the strategy shift is an increasing demand from consumers—who have ubiquitous access to information on companies and their work around the globe—for more transparency and humanitarianism from all of the companies they deal with.

“If you want to drive your corporate reputation, you need to do something. That doesn’t mean just sell a product or service—that’s not enough. You need to have a business purpose and a social purpose," Grela said, adding while the two are separate, they should be linked, "which is what smart social responsibility does.”

Of course, most pharma companies already have social responsibility initiatives such as philanthropic funds and coordinated employee volunteer efforts, but modern CSR is about syncing business and social goals.

“Consumers, partners and customers are expecting much more from companies,” Grela said. “It’s important for people to see that in pharma too—Pfizer on a "top LGBTQ places to work" ranking or J&J showing up on a most admired company list or GSK striving to be carbon neutral by 2025. These are all things that are important to people.”

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That means working on reputation through genuine efforts around diversity and inclusion, environmental conservation, and philanthropy, but also with increased visibility for executives and employees. More and more pharma companies are joining the social and cultural dialogue.

Consider Johnson & Johnson Chief Scientific Officer Paul Stoffels, who appeared regularly in J&J’s weekly “A Road to the Vaccine” live Facebook series, and Pfizer Chief Corporate Affairs Officer Sally Susman, who’s been speaking up about Pfizer’s science mission, but also offered personal insights during the pandemic.

At the end of the day, it’s not only about improving pharma company reputation, but also sales that may be on the line.

“If someday you have a choice between two COVID vaccines down the road, you might feel one company is more ethical and choose that medicine,” Grela said.

That goes for medical professionals as well. A new study from Hall & Partners and Porter Novelli found that 90% of HCPs consider a company’s purpose in patient care and prescription drug choice, with more than half ranking it as a strong consideration.