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As healthcare communications professionals, many of us have spent the last year trying to break through the wall-to-wall, 24/7 pandemic news cycle. As the vaccine rollout picks up steam and the light at the end of the tunnel becomes brighter with each passing day, it’s become clear that COVID fatigue has clearly set in and everyone seems to be ready to move on and pitch their “next big thing.” More often than not, many of those pitches will have a weak connection to the current news cycle and healthcare or pharmaceutical reporters will barely take notice — at least not now. But the right time is coming closer and if you haven’t been preparing for it, you’re already behind.
The current reality is that healthcare journalists have very limited capacity to think beyond their current deadlines. However, this moment in time is like no other. It is providing us with what may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a breath, pause and anticipate what that next news cycle will look like versus just reacting. Something we seldom have time to do. For those of us that don’t work with or for a company drowning in the thick of this relentless juncture in time, the opportunities as we try to reimagine a future without an acute and present crisis are endless.
As we stop and think about what comes next, a realization emerges. As disturbing as it may sound, profoundly positive discoveries have surfaced that will impact the future of medicine and we have COVID-19 to thank for that.
If the past year has taught us anything it is that scientific innovation has the power to save lives on the grandest of scales. The pandemic will leave an indelible mark on science and pharma news coverage as we move ahead — specifically, not only how these stories are covered, but which stories are covered. Science has now officially hit the mainstream and the general population has a growing appetite for this kind of news that had barely existed before. The genie is out of the bottle.
This newfound mainstream popularity will beg additional questions. How do we now achieve similar quick advances in other disease areas, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s? Why has it taken so long? The general population will begin to ask difficult questions that have seldom been asked pre-COVID. The pandemic has lit a spark for a desire for facts and understanding and the media and general scientific community will need to heed this call to achieve a greater understanding of these issues.
Believe it or not, at some point, we won’t be seeing wall-to-wall COVID coverage anymore, but stories about the fallout. We likely will start to see a shift to economic impact, the future of our schools, social implications, as well as the impact that COVID had on mental health and other conditions. Pharmaceutical brands should be preparing and anticipating future stories that are going to make headlines. COVID-19 will never go away completely, but the coverage will slowly begin to evolve, and the pandemic will not be leading the nightly broadcasts or be featured on the front pages on a daily basis forever.
So, how can pharmaceutical brands prepare for what’s next?
1. Listen to understand. Pharmaceutical brands and communicators need to listen to understand the current media landscape and what people (as humans, not data sets or broad audiences) want to hear right now in this period of time. What stories do people care to hear about? What’s the best way to tell those stories so they can be impactful at the right time?
2. Empathize and interact to connect. During this time of crisis, pharmaceutical brands need to create honest, authentic connections by building trust. Talk to your target audiences. Host focus groups or messaging workshops to ensure your communications are resonating on a truly human level with those audiences. Go one step further and infuse empathy into each brand communication, so your story truly resonates, and people form emotional connections with your brand.
3. Explore to find. From big pharmaceutical companies that want to reconnect with key audiences about a disease and potential solutions, to emerging high-tech startups that want to bring their science to life, what research can you conduct now as we head into the post-pandemic world? Use research methods not to confirm biases but to uncover simple human truths. Explore your findings and insights to find the right moment to state your POV or make your mark.
4. Dream to create. This is the time to dream big and create something that hasn’t been done before. There’s an opportunity to stand out from the noise with a unique point of view which touches hearts and minds. Think outside of the box and anticipate what topics might be newsworthy and determine what you can do right now to prepare to leverage them.
Remember, thanks to science, this pandemic isn’t going to last forever but the impact from it just might. We can’t go back but we have a new path forward. It’s a path paved with many silver linings from what we’ve learned from COVID-19 and we’ve only just begun to imagine the possibilities.
Jenifer Slaw and Dean Mastrojohn are SVPs of Media Relations at Goodfuse.