Camilla White, Simona Kormanikova and Bridie Lawlor O’Boyl
Camilla White, Simona Kormanikova and Bridie Lawlor O’Boyle co-authored this article.

In September 2019, Gallup published its annual poll which found the pharma industry was the most poorly-regarded industry in the U.S. It was the lowest the industry has ranked since the poll launched 19 years ago. Less than a year later, a U.S. survey conducted by FTI Consulting revealed that public perceptions of the biopharmaceutical industry had improved significantly amid global efforts to address COVID-19. This is perhaps no great surprise with the world turning to the industry as a key leader in the fight against the pandemic. But as we look to a post-COVID era, staying ahead of potential reputational risks will be critical for pharma to continue building on this upswing in public perception.

Leading the fight

As the world faces an unprecedented health crisis, the pharma industry has stepped up to spearhead efforts to find a solution. Collaborating like never before, companies have teamed up to share data and research, and apply different technologies and platforms to accelerate the search for treatments or a vaccine. When a vaccine eventually becomes available, the industry has already committed to providing additional expertise and resources to manufacture at scale.

FTI’s survey findings reflect an acknowledgment of pharma’s critical role in the crisis: more than 50 percent of respondents viewed the industry more favorably based on how it has handled the pandemic thus far. However, 42 percent of respondents also believe the industry will price Americans out of the vaccine and misuse funds, reflecting potential reputational challenges to come.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '20 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine (view PDF version)

With all eyes on pharma, companies must push ahead to help solve this global crisis while also developing and deploying short and longer-term strategies to tell their story accurately and impactfully to further improve public perception.

Safety over politics

As we approach the U.S. presidential election, pharma companies’ efforts to find a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 could be engulfed in political rhetoric as candidates seek to position themselves on key pandemic-related issues. A recent STAT-Harris poll revealed that 78 percent of Americans worry the COVID-19 vaccine approval process is already being driven more by politics than science.

At a time when the public needs reassurance that developing a vaccine quickly will not compromise safety, companies need to focus their message on just that: ensuring safety. And the industry is already starting to come together to take control of the narrative. In September, nine biopharma leaders—Pfizer, Sanofi, AstraZeneca, Moderna, BioNTech, Merck, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline and Novavax—jointly pledged to “stand with science” and uphold “high ethical standards and sound scientific principles,” countering claims that they might seek premature approval ahead of the presidential election on November 3.

As political campaigns gather pace ahead of the election, continuing to find ways to clearly articulate priorities and commitments as a group will help the industry maintain its focus and its message. Communications strategies that consistently engage all stakeholders using the most effective channels will be critical to cut through the noise and reach audiences during this unprecedented period in both U.S. politics and the global fight against COVID-19.

Hope for the best, prepare for the future

As we look beyond the election, pharma must also keep an eye on topics that have come into focus during the pandemic and could pose risks down the line. Anticipating and preparing for potential crises, both reputational and health, is a key tenet of Environment, Social and Governance strategies that coincides with increased attention on ESG factors in recent months as companies and their stakeholders reflect on how to better navigate times of uncertainty.

COVID-19 has highlighted social factors across all sectors, but pharma in particular will need to anticipate scrutiny around the price of a vaccine once one reaches the market. A recent Moody’s Investor Services report suggests that “given the significant public health implications, reputational harm could ensue if prices are perceived to be too high,” and “with global demand likely to far outstrip initial supplies, the ­equitable distribution of vaccines also ­poses social risks.”

However, pharma has also made good progress in ESG areas even against the backdrop of a pandemic. According to the same Moody’s report, there are positive implications for pharma’s relations with customers and stakeholders such as patients, doctors, hospitals, governments and global health authorities. We’ve also seen a number of renewed commitments to the environment, significant donations to impacted communities, and improved workplace flexibility and safety. As the world faces continued urgent health needs, a long path to economic recovery and uncertainty across the board, these issues remain fundamental to business sustainability and to stakeholders.

As the tireless efforts to find a solution for COVID-19 continue, maintaining a clear focus and a narrative in the current environment while mitigating longer-term risks will be integral to improving public opinion of the pharma industry. By emphasizing commitment to patient safety, navigating the election and anticipating risks associated with ESG factors, pharma companies can communicate their efforts as responsible corporate citizens to build on what it has already achieved and further strengthen its reputation in the U.S. and globally.


Camilla White is Managing Director, Simona Kormanikova is Senior Director and Bridie Lawlor O’Boyle is Senior Consultant in FTI's Strategic Communications, Healthcare and Life Sciences U.S. team.