The COVID-19 pandemic has led to previously unthinkable restrictions on our daily lives and has created its very own healthcare communications challenges.
But we have been here before. Remember the 2009 H1N1 ‘Swine Flu’ pandemic? That was one of the first times modern communications had faced a health crisis of such global magnitude.
Here, two Difference Collective members, healthcare issues and crisis communications specialist Clare Evans and Stuart Mayell, Head of the Creative Difference, who both had roles in Tamiflu communications for drug firm Roche throughout that crisis, take a look back at the harsh reality of pandemic comms and what it can teach us all.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENS IN A PR WAR ROOM
There is a camera crew on the roof of the company from a well-known cable network – can you deal with them?
There is a plane carrying a shipment of medication that has been told to divert to another airport by the opposition leader from that country. We need to intervene – can you help?
We have 500 staff in X country at a congress – how do we reach all of them and get them home?
There is 50+ affiliate markets on the phone/email at the same time asking for help and guidance – who do we turn to first?
These questions may seem exaggerated, but as we tackled the Swine Flu pandemic back in 2009, they were very much the harsh reality of what we faced on a daily basis.
As much as people yell ‘WE NEED A Q&A DOCUMENT NOW,’ (and they really did), it is so much more than that.
As global comms lead, you quickly become THE point of contact – the person everyone turns to for ideas, help, plans and answers. You become a friend, counsellor, someone to cry on, pizza-orderer, cleaner (no-one was allowed in the crisis room during the pandemic) and joker (you have to laugh).
Then there is your day job (or night job as the crisis demands) of communicating calmly and figuring out what the company should say and, just as importantly, what it most definitely shouldn’t say.
The juggle is intense – as one affiliate market goes to sleep, another one wakes up. You write a lot of documents too, including key messages, internal memos, posters, talking points, letters, emails, protocols, media responses.
It is also essential to have overarching principles to guide every decision you make. These are, in order of importance:
Spending nine months is a crisis room changes your life. Nothing is normal. You eat and sleep when you can. You take calls from regulators, employees, media, governments, public health officials, executive board members, the Chairman, the CEO, patients, the list is endless.
The Q&A document you update every 30 minutes is outdated the minute it is sent out. You are preparing materials with 20% of the facts and 80% common sense until the facts and data are available. You must accept errors if they are made and move on with no recriminations. You learn what works and what doesn’t as you go along. You learn that someone shouting at you is not personal, it can sometimes be they just need an outlet to let pent-up stress go.
LESSONS LEARNED IN LOCKDOWN
Having lived through communicating during a pandemic, here is our advice to help you navigate this challenging time:
1. KEEP HORIZON-SCANNING, KEEP LISTENING.
Even in the midst of the worst crisis, other issues can rear their heads. Roche is still dealing with the fallout of a related Tamiflu issue that blew up when everyone was focused on the pandemic.
2. KNOW THAT NOTHING LASTS FOREVER.
One day it will all be over and you will return to your usual role. That transition back can be tough but it’s OK to feel like this. Talk to your team, people or professionals who understand and take each day at a time until the new reality becomes normal again. Then you will look back and say: ‘We did that, we managed that, we survived it and it feels good.
3. BE HONEST AND OPEN.
Follow your guiding principles for everything you do. You will feel overwhelmed and scared at times, but this is normal.
4. MISTAKES WILL BE MADE SOMETIMES. THIS IS OK.
Learn from them. As you manage through the crisis you become more confident in your abilities, you learn new skills and become a better communicator as a result.
5. KEEP AN OPEN MIND.
Listen to ideas, thoughts and suggestions from others and lean on them in particularly stressful times. Talking and sharing feelings is a good thing.
About the authors
Stuart Mayell, Head of the Creative Difference, is a highly adaptable facilitator of ideation, strategy, messaging and crisis workshops. With 22 years of undimmed curiosity about health and science, he is an advocate for evidence-based creativity to tackle society’s greatest health challenges, and help businesses succeed.
Clare Evans, has worked in pharma for over 20 years, both in-house and in agencies. She has led global and regional communications teams at Novartis, Roche and AstraZeneca. Her focus areas are executive and leadership communications, issues and crisis communications, strategy development, and scientific data communications. She is also a qualified pharmacy technician.
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