PR Matters: Why the AstraZeneca vaccine fell victim to a bad press release

I can’t stress this enough: branding and communication is vital

I’m used to people treating me like a stupid bimbo when they hear I ‘work in PR’. The expectation of extraordinary stupidity and a vacuous grin. The unnecessary attempts to simplify everything down to what they assume a stupid, boring woman who can probably look pretty at a shareholder meeting could understand. The problem is that real PR, PR at a level that actually saves you millions, requires a whole lot more thought and research than what you’d probably thought. As AZ found out, the hard way.

I could go off in a rant here about the number of (predominantly male) clients who have suggested that I research their sector, or insist on explaining ‘profit’ to me, but that’s not why I’m writing this. PR isn’t, contrary to popular imagination, calling boring board members ‘babes’ at conferences as you hand around useless leaflets saying actualize and optimize. We don’t really do press releases anymore. Conferences are more egofests than any genuine attempt at learning or releasing anything. A lot of PR is gritty research, networking, getting information from hardcore academia and investor documents into an understandable format and speaking human to the right audience. Easy? No.

It’s extremely rare to meet anyone working at a high level who doesn’t assume that they know far more about PR than you, that you know nothing about anything, and that it’s perfectly acceptable to send a 5,000 word document to a journalist explaining the latest valve on their vacuum cleaner range. Even tiny, tiny changes like cutting a sentence down or changing the word ‘infinite’ to ‘boundless’ can inspire meetings so long that Beowulf looks like some light reading before bed. Often it’s not until they have realized on attempt 9 that their strategy isn’t working that they’ll attempt to listen to you. Some clients will have you muting yourself on zoom just to scream at the misogyny of it all. Because hey, stupid bimbo, right?

Anyway, here’s why actually you should hire a good PR for something important, and you should listen to them. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:

The Fable of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 Vaccine

Rule 1 of PR is very, very simple. Make sure you convey information to your audience in a way they will understand.

Obvious, right? Apparently not. I’ll spell it out. Journalists are busy. Investors are busy. People scrolling through their phones are busy. If they want to go into a 18 page PDF on your website listing the viral dosage quantities, they will. But chances are, whatever you are selling, your audience wants to know three things: 1. What has happened. 2. What you are doing/have done. 3. What it means.

But won’t this mean offending people by dumbing it down? Don’t we risk coming off as non-scientific and precise? I hear you, but no. For one, you’re a medical company. People aren’t going to think you developed a vaccine using crayon and some crepe paper. For two, if you suffocate your press with jargon, they are going to find bits that they understand and work with those: not the bits you necessarily want. Pfizer led with the lead that their vaccine was ‘extremely effective: 95%.’ Moderna did the same. Both only focused on total vaccination: both doses, not one. Which makes sense! Why on earth would your audience want to know about 1 dose? Would you go into what happens when a patient takes half their medication on a PR release? Urgh.

So yeah, that was a bad start. Suddenly, every single new source was flooded with different readings of needlessly diluted data. Was it 60%? Well, that was terrible next to Moderna and Pfizer. Disappointing. Wait, it was 80%? What? Somewhere between 60% and 80%? The first rule of PR had been broken.

The audience was confused.

There was now a whole PR scandal AZ didn’t actually deserve or need. Suddenly, the story wasn’t that the vaccine was 80% effective: it was that AZ had a totally weird variation of results and they couldn’t be trusted with their crap vaccine and methodology. All because of the way they presented their data to journalists and the public.

Now, I don’t care or know what goes into a medical report, the vast majority of people are not going to read the Lancet. If you want to go into supreme detail over the minutiae of your trials great, I’m all for transparency, but don’t ever flood journalists with too much information straight away. It’s stupid, it’s totally pointless and you lose control of the story. If you want to put the full research project on your website, do it, but never lead with it in a pitch. Ever. I digress.

Rule 2 of PR is also extremely simple. If the press gets hold of a bad story, deal with it straight away and control the narrative.

This, for me at least, is where AstraZeneca floundered so hard they lost a lot of credibility and faith from the general public on their vaccine. Not because the vaccine was bad. Not because there were horrible side effects, or because it turned people green. All because they took way too long to combat a negative story.

The negative story was a bit of a glitch, but nothing that could be considered unprecedented. A batch in Italy of the vaccine trials meant people received a different dose. Usually this would be a total non-story: you’d brush it off straight away by saying there was a small error in the initial stages, but you’d established the vaccine was safe and more effective at a lower dose. That’s an email I can reply to a journalist with in six seconds. All true, non-story. I certainly wouldn’t wait hours for an official announcement while the story travelled the world and hit every news source between England and North Korea.

Again, we got convoluted, confusing data. It wasn’t short. It wasn’t played down. It was presented as ‘errors in dosage due to MISREADING measurements’: something that no doubt inspires enormous confidence in potential consumers and buyers. There is no such thing as a happy accident in a major, urgent vaccine trial. Any errors, particularly your scientists not being able to read a label, cost confidence. This was not information that needed to go public, it was not information that needed a messy, long response, and it was certainly not helpful to fan the flames.

So, thanks entirely to bad PR decisions, AstraZeneca’s vaccine went from being the pride of Britain, something that made Matt Hancock literally weep for joy on live TV, to becoming the ‘crap’ vaccine. The 60% vaccine. The vaccine that had dodgy trials. And now, thanks to the same PR, the vaccine that ‘doesn’t work against variants’ despite the fact that no other vaccine has been established to work against them as effectively, either. It’s enough to make me hit my bimbo PR head on the desk.

Now, I’m not saying their PR team are stupid. I’m well versed in corporate red tape, obstructive internal hierarchy, internal politics, and men who think you are there for decorative reasons in quarterly meetings. I know what it’s like to work with people who think everything can be solved through a horribly long document written over 12 months, I know what it is like to be completely ignored over PR strategy, and then blamed when the end result is, well, as bad as this. Well not THIS bad. Even I’ve never been in this position. But I get it. It’s very rarely the PR team’s fault, or at least alone.

But the fact remains, dear readers, that if you are perhaps working with your PR team on a project, you should listen to them. You should think about tone, about readability, and about the mistakes of ignoring a profession you consider inferior to your own. Because I promise you, the whole flirtatious, giggling vacuous thing is largely an act PRs put on to put you at ease and not intimidate you. We aren’t stupid. If you’re paying us: listen.

Anthropologist with an awful lot to say about everything. Opinions entirely my own. Usually. madelaine@madelainehanson.co.uk

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