Crisis Communication Plans in Pharma

Article

The pharmaceutical industry must have crisis communications prepared now to anticipate unforeseen events—especially those that impact public trust.

Crisis Communications Plan: © Andrii - stock.adobe.com (AdobeStock 494074653)

Crisis Communications Plan: © Andrii - stock.adobe.com (AdobeStock 494074653)

Just 49% of US companies currently have a formal crisis communications plan at the ready for an unexpected event that could threaten their corporate reputation.1 For the pharmaceutical industry, which is unique in its clinical, regulatory compliance, and marketing challenges, the risk of a crisis is notable, making it critical to have a plan in hand—and practiced—for potentially negative situations. In this article, you will learn the essential steps to develop a formal crisis communications plan to prepare your company for its best response to anticipated as well as unforeseen events that could have an impact on your operations and public trust.

Any company, no matter how diligent, can find itself suddenly thrust into a crisis due to internal or external factors—from a product safety recall to a clinical trial death. At the same time, cyber threats, data privacy and security, quality issues, and marketplace economics cut across industry sectors. On any given day there may be immediate or pressing issues to handle, and some companies believe a crisis won’t happen to them—that is until it does happen, and then it’s more important than ever to be prepared and confident with a crisis communications plan.


The new normal

The COVID-19 pandemic vaulted pharmaceutical companies, their products, scientists, and research into the public domain, resulting in greater visibility and an elevated reputation.2 While healthcare companies were less visible and less reputable for most Americans in the last year compared to earlier in the pandemic, according to the annual Axios Harris Poll 100, the public has a baseline expectation of character and trust that wasn’t previously accorded to the industry.3 This is an important factor when considering corporate actions during a crisis when overall visibility is up.

In fact, mishandling a crisis can exacerbate the issue at hand and shake public trust, potentially causing long-lasting harm. Stakeholders—whether customers, shareholders, healthcare providers, business partners, or employees—will want to know the facts of what happened, how it affects them, and what the company plans to do. Companies need to be prepared to address a crisis immediately before social media or someone else defines what it means for their stakeholders.


Steps to get started

The solution is to plan messaging and procedures in advance of any potential situation. Here are a few steps to get started:

  1. Identify a crisis communications team. Typical members of the team include the corporate communications/investor relations heads, external public relations counsel, as well as representatives of other areas of the company such as human resources, regulatory affairs, legal, and professionals from locations other than corporate. Having subject matter experts on board with where the company is most vulnerable will be an asset. In fact, risk management scenarios unique to these individuals’ areas of operation may coincide with many potential crisis situations.
  2. Anticipate potential crisis scenarios, both those specific to your company and the industry, as well as any business mentioned above. Start by considering everyday operations, incidents faced by other companies, current events, and market indicators. Develop messaging for these scenarios in advance. This includes a “holding statement,” which is a simple statement acknowledging there is a situation, the company is working hard to ascertain the facts and will have more information to communicate soon. In addition, review your core messaging and related materials. Having a strong communications foundation—core messaging, mission, vision, brand identity, and targeted communications strategies—paves the way in times of crisis. Communication tactics and specific messages may be modified in the face of a crisis, but overall positioning should remain unchanged.
  3. Identify spokespeople and communications protocols. Ensure key staff can be located and reached. Rather than scrambling to find key personnel and resources in the middle of a situation, plot your response when the business is operating normally. In addition, prepare your staff. Media and speakers training for high-level executives can be valuable in general as well as using your pre-determined scenarios. Determine who may and may not speak to the media and communicate this to all employees.
  4. Determine who your stakeholders are, specifically, and how, when, and what medium to contact them. These may include board members, regulatory and government officials, patients, healthcare facilities, investors, and employees. It’s important to remember to make employees feel included in communications about the company’s plans. They need to clearly understand the path the company is taking, what it means, and how the company will get there. Clear communications across the board mean that consistent messaging is disseminated to all audiences at the right time.
  5. Practice in advance. Training should start with the crisis communications team and expand throughout the company. After each rehearsal, the team and management should assess strengths and weaknesses and make changes as needed. In addition, any updates should be added to the crisis communications plan, for instance, if a product transitioned from clinical trials to commercialization. According to Capterra’s 2022 Crisis Communications Survey, 84% of business leaders who have been through a crisis say they would increase practicing in advance.4

In addition to specific steps in building a formal crisis communications plan, it can be beneficial, as learned from communications during the pandemic era, to continue to strengthen corporate reputation and relationships with the media as foundations to rely on if (and when) the next crisis does occur. Credibility and confidence are particularly important during difficult times. Stakeholders need to hear directly from management that the company is on course and continues to convey a compelling corporate story.


References

  1. Capers, Z., “More than Half of U.S. Businesses Should Be Worried About the Next Crisis—Here's Why,” Capterra, Feb. 23, 2023. https://www.capterra.com/resources/crisis-communications-plan/
  2. Seagal, A, “Pharma Shows Business Leaders How To Recover From A Crisis,” Forbes, March 23, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsegal/2021/03/23/pharma-shows-business-leaders-how-to-recover-from-a-crisis/
  3. Axios, “Axios Harris Poll 100: Americans Move on from ‘Defensive’ Health,” March 24, 2023. https://www.axios.com/2023/05/24/axios-harris-poll-100-defensive-health
  4. Capers, Z., “More than Half of U.S. Businesses Should Be Worried About the Next Crisis—Here's Why,” Capterra, Feb. 23, 2023. https://www.capterra.com/resources/crisis-communications-plan/


Mark Corbae is a managing director for ICR Westwicke.

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