Prove your purpose NOW: a window of opportunity for Pharma

How to use a once-in-a-lifetime chance to expand your license to operate

Pharmaceutical and life science companies may be losing a unique opportunity to raise their reputation and social acceptance to a higher level.

While public opinion toward pharmaceutical companies reached unprecedented heights during the first wave of infections in the early 2020s, the tone has recently shifted massively in a negative direction.

Thanks to people's optimism for new vaccines to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the pharmaceutical industry enjoyed its best reputation ratings ever in the spring of 2020. Fifty percent of all posts in news media and social media conveyed a positive tone about the industry.

But by the second half of 2020, we saw a decline in public acceptance as companies failed to demonstrate continued commitment to the greater good. Instead, discussions about pricing and whether poor countries and people will get vaccines dominated the debate.

Most recently, public distribution battles over the delivery of vaccine doses to individual countries significantly tarnished media image. Moreover, the question of how effective and safe the various vaccines are unsettles people. The tone of published opinion on the pharmaceutical industry plummeted from 50 percent positive (March to May 2020) to only 14 percent positive (July 2020 to January 2021). Negative articles and postings about the industry have now more than doubled, to 33 percent (from just 16 percent in spring 2020).


National governments are the most important stakeholder group

But there is still a chance to take advantage of the immense public attention and to strengthen one's own reputation in the long term. It is not a question of appearing as a crisis winner. It's about fulfilling people's hopes, and proving to the public that the top priority for companies is also to defeat the virus.

One stakeholder group is particularly important: national governments. Politicians with government responsibilities are currently under massive pressure worldwide. They are confronted daily with death tolls, economic horror stories, and growing citizen discontent over ongoing restrictions on civil liberties.

Their most important way to overcome this situation is the success of national vaccination campaigns. Making vaccination campaigns a success will be the main political issue everywhere in the coming months.  Accordingly, public attention is immense. We identified more than 51 million articles and postings about vaccination in January 2021 alone, a 404 percent increase compared to October 2020.

In order to take advantage of this momentum, companies need to change the way they communicate. So far, their share in the public debate has been negligible. The pharmaceutical industry appears as a player in only twelve percent of all articles and postings. In addition, the tone toward the industry and the individual companies is critical on average. The value for January 2021 is -0.3, on a scale from +1 (positive) to -1 (negative).

Pharmaceutical and life science companies need to do a better job of highlighting their constructive role in the fight against the pandemic. The time is now to actually publicly demonstrate the "purpose" that is often claimed. An appropriate way to do this might be to flank the governments' vaccination campaigns with their own marketing and PR campaigns. But so far, hardly any activities are visible.

If companies and industry associations can help increase the public’s willingness to be vaccinated through their own campaigns, they could likely count on improved support from politicians. Their general approval ratings could also rise significantly if, in retrospect, their contribution to combating the virus enters public consciousness as an important success factor. Both would mean that the industry, which has historically been viewed rather negatively, could sustainably expand its social "license to operate.”


What can companies do?

  • Use the immense public attention to demonstrate social responsibility.
  • Be transparent and demonstrate how vaccines are developed and tested and how you ensure that as many people as possible receive the vaccine
  • Develop or support campaigns that focus on the overall fight against the virus, not just for their own brands.

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