covid & pharma pr: nurturing the narrative

COVID-19 has wrought havoc, leaving economies and healthcare systems alike stretched to breaking point. But it has also presented pharma PRs and marketers with something of a learning opportunity.

As the industry moved to play its part in the mounting crisis, conventional wisdom was turned on its head. Suddenly, the sector was talking to the public, working with competitors, and quickly adopting new ways of working.

The result has been a shift in perceptions. Negative ‘Big Pharma’ headlines have been driven off the news agenda, to be replaced with stories that put the industry and its scientists front and centre of the fight against SARS-CoV-2.

So, what have we learnt about pharma PR and communications from the last 12 months, and how can we apply it to non-COVID work in the future?


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  1. Communicate

Pharma has long hidden its light under a bushel. Concerned about breaking the ABPI Code of Practice ban on promoting medicines directly to the public, marketers have erred on the side of caution.

Historically, this has given negative headlines, whether they focus on price hikes or adverse events, free reign to shape reputations. It has also made the inner workings of the sector something of a mystery, contributing to suspicion and mistrust.

But COVID-19 has given industry the chance to open up and show its human side. By driving transparency, the pandemic has shown the public that pharma is an integral part of the healthcare ecosystem, with public health and better outcomes chief among its objectives.

It means companies have been named checked in Government press conferences, their scientists lauded in newspapers, and their announcements widely shared on social media.

What’s more, it has demonstrated that it is possible generate positive press, within the confines of the code, by focusing on what matters to customers.

Read: Building a force of virtual pharma sales reps


  1. Collaborate

The whole research and healthcare community came together against a common enemy over the last 12 months. In many areas, competition has been replaced by collaboration.

Within weeks of SARS-CoV-2 being identified, its genetic sequence had been uploaded to a public website. Rival pharmaceutical companies then pooled their therapy and vaccine efforts, sharing resources and expertise rather than retreating to their traditional siloes.

R&D, once shrouded in secrecy, became a matter of public debate, placing it firmly within mainstream news cycles and building the standing of the industry.

Of course, this level of collaboration is probably unsustainable in the long run – the industry works within a business model with competition at its heart. However, now that companies have now seen the PR value of joint working, there are targeted ways in which they could put it to use.

Future collaborative efforts to increase vaccine uptake, or raise awareness of endemic health conditions, for example, could pay dividends in terms of generating non-promotional coverage.


  1. Innovate

Pharma was slow to adopt social media. Its instant, stripped back nature seemed at odds with time-consuming, regulation-focused approval processes.

While uptake had been increasing over the last few years, in the main part the approach was formulaic and static: the very opposite of what people expect from dynamic channels. But COVID-19 has created a captive, online community and accelerated change.

Social media teams have increased visibility and engagement with the roll out of non-branded awareness campaigns. AbbVie’s ‘My Glaucoma, My Design’ and GSK’s ‘Vaccinate for Life’, for example, have both gained traction online.

To succeed, companies have had to experiment with new ways of developing and approving content. The modular approach, for example, provides teams with a set of pre-approved “blocks” of content they can mix and match based on each channel’s specific audience and needs.

Such learning curves are only expected to get steeper as pharma moves to capitalise on its new-found popularity.

The pharma industry’s reputation has skyrocketed during the pandemic, thanks to the way its vital work has been presented to the public.

The traditionally shy sector can now take what it has learnt from 2020 – that shouting about success and talking about public health are not code violations – and apply it to future comms plans.


Download our free Spotlight on Pharmaceuticals, designed for PR and marketers in the sector.


To discuss how your marketing plans can be supported by the Henley Group, get in touch with our team today: [email protected]



The Henley Group is a B2B communciations agency, based in Henley-on-Thames, UK. We specialise in public relations, content marketing, corporate communications and strategic consulting for clients in the UK and overseas. We advise, plan, produce and deliver engaging communication programmes for clients across a range of B2B sectors.