30 March 2022
Crisis comms – unique challenges for all healthcare companies. Is your organisation prepared?
All businesses in healthcare need to be prepared for when things go wrong. Even the best run companies fall foul of negative events that can, if left unattended, escalate quickly and have the potential to cause significant and lasting reputational damage. As such it’s highly advisable that businesses, both large and small across all subsectors of the industry from pharma, biotech, diagnostics, AI to healthcare services, dedicate time to undertaking proper risk assessment and crisis planning.
So, what contingencies should companies have in place for when things go south?
Planning is critical; a well-prepared management team will have anticipated many of the possible crises that could feasibly occur in their business, work out which of these are avoidable by modifying operations and giving themselves time to think about potential responses, best- and worst-case scenarios and desired outcomes.
Many companies appoint a small team of senior executives designated as the Crisis Team. Typically, this will be led by a COO, supported by the Company’s public relations Head and legal counsel. If your in-house PR executive does not have sufficient crisis communications expertise, he or she may choose to retain or lean on their communications agency, such as Consilium, who do have extensive experience in this arena. Consilium recommends an annual crisis simulation workshop for senior management and even the Board in preparation for any potential major crisis, which in our experience can include scenarios related to finance, corruption, fire/explosion, death, product recall, facility shut down as well as any other identified risks relevant to the business.
Perhaps most importantly, companies should think hard about who their most important stakeholders are and how best to speak to them. Some of the greatest failures in crisis communications can be attributed to a simple failure to ascertain who your most important audience is. A biotechnology company reporting a failed Phase III study, for example, needs to consider the impact that this news will have on multiple stakeholder groups – including staff and investors but, most importantly, patients – for whom the possibility of a new treatment for a particular condition may have been a source of great hope.
With key audiences identified, companies must then work to build trust with their stakeholders – a company with a reputation for honest, clear communication will have built up a bank of goodwill that could prove crucial during a tough period. Again, preparation is key, and the foundations of this trust should be built well before the company finds itself in crisis territory. Communications teams can build a good reputation through simple best practice such as providing facts when available, communicating openly and ensuring that enquiries are always followed up when you agree to do so, even if additional information is not available.
The landmark example of a Company successfully regaining trust after a crisis is Johnson & Johnson’s response after seven people who had taken the company’s market-leading, over-the-counter painkiller, Tylenol, died from poisoning due to bottle tampering in 1982. J&J immediately ran advertisements to alert consumers not to take their product, ceased production and pulled the product. After six weeks, the company had designed the first, triple-lock tamper-resistant container. This immediate and transparent response saw Tylenol regain its market share.
One may compare this response to that of Purdue Pharma’s doubling-down in the face of growing concern surrounding its marketing practices for OxyContin – a factor in one of the biggest (and ongoing) public health crises to impact the US in its history – and the resultant damage to that company’s reputation.
Healthcare companies and their products will naturally come under more scrutiny than other industries. We are dealing with patients, and the very nature of what our industry is trying to achieve means that failures can provoke emotional responses beyond those experienced by other sectors. Companies must be mindful of this in their approach and communications team should consider how their messages will land. Failure to do so could lead to a damaging backlash further down the line, which particularly in the age of social media, can quickly escalate.