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#05 The AstraZeneca Saga: What Companies Can Learn.

Corporate crises can strike anytime, and AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant, is no exception

Once lauded for its effective and affordable vaccine during the pandemic, the company later faced credibility challenges.

Rarely ever has a company experienced such a roller coaster ride as AstraZeneca did.

What went wrong?

“If there were a crisis line for corporate self-harm, AstraZeneca ought to be reported: The company can’t seem to stop hacking away at its own credibility.”- Fortune

If you’ve been out of the loop or perhaps overlooked some pivotal developments. Allow me to rewind and navigate you through the crucial junctures that shaped this unfolding narrative right from its inception.

Are you with me?

The Crisis Timeline: AstraZeneca’s Ups and Downs.

September 2020: Before the close of the year, a sudden pause gripped AstraZeneca’s clinical trials in September. The reason? A participant developed symptoms of transverse myelitis, a seldom-seen condition impacting the spinal marrow. It wasn’t the maiden case, another incident had come to light in July 2020. Indications seem to suggest the vaccine wasn’t the culprit. However, what raised eyebrows was AstraZeneca’s delayed communication — a full three days. The unsettling part? US authorities allegedly discovered this halt via media channels.

Autumn 2020: Online buzz around AstraZeneca swells, predominantly shadowed by negative headlines. This crescendo reaches a heartbreaking climax in mid-March 2021 with a staggering number of daily mentions.

The major concerns? Unresolved fatalities, waning trust in parts of Europe, and debatable data integrity.

December 2020:

  • UK’s Green Light: As the year drew to a close, the UK officially recognized AstraZeneca’s vaccine.
  • Data Disclosure: In the same month, AstraZeneca laid bare its efficacy data. A surprising revelation surfaced — due to a measurement oversight, approximately 1,400 participants got just half the intended dose. Though not deemed catastrophic, Reuters hinted at these participants being kept in the dark about this discrepancy.
  • Discrepant Opinions: Mene Pangalos, the central researcher at AstraZeneca, labeled this as a “beneficial blunder.” However, CEO Pascal Soriot, alongside Oxford’s Sarah Gilbert, refuted it being a blunder at all. The pressing question: who was on the mark?

March 2021:

  • Mourning March: A disconcerting series of fatalities came to light. “NZZ am Sonntag” remarked how Europe had grown cautious, often storing the vaccine rather than administering it. This trepidation reflected in AstraZeneca’s wobbling stock price.
  • In Defense: Amidst rising apprehensions, AstraZeneca stood its ground. Ann Taylor, its Chief Medical Officer, underscored that post-vaccination blood clot cases were fewer than statistically expected. While possibly accurate, the articulation ruffled feathers. The aftermath? Multiple nations, including six from Europe, momentarily discontinued the AstraZeneca vaccination. And the controversy escalated when April confirmed the demise of a young German woman, post-vaccination.

Second Half of March 2021:

  • Efficacy Announcements: A brief silver lining emerged when AstraZeneca declared a promising efficacy rate of 79%. But the celebration was fleeting, as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) hinted at potentially outdated data. This institute, led by renowned virologist Anthony Fauci, did back the study. Yet, within a day, AstraZeneca recalibrated its figures to 76%. The change, though marginal, dented their public image further.

April 2021:

  • Legal Tussles: The European Union, alleging breach of delivery agreements, took legal steps against AstraZeneca. While AstraZeneca leaned on contract terms for defense, it couldn’t deny the recent lags in vaccine delivery.

During this period, between September 2020 and April 2021, the digital sphere teemed with 225.3 million statements about AstraZeneca. A paltry 7% echoed positivity, while an overwhelming 30% bore a negative undertone.

How did AstraZeneca’s messaging falter? And in what ways might it have intensified the crisis?

As a crisis communication consultant specializing in health communication, let me help you meticulously dissect and provide insight into how unintended actions may have unintentionally fanned the flames of the crisis.

Transverse Myelitis: The company stumbled on an elemental step: instantaneous and open communication following the side effects incident. Our inclination leans towards trusting the initial informants. Yet, when silence prevailed from AstraZeneca’s end, it seemed like an open invitation for scrutiny. And the ripples of discontent spread far and wide — from authorities to shareholders, customers, employees, and most critically, the patients.

The Dosage Dilemma: Between Oxford researchers and AstraZeneca’s upper echelon, where was the consensus? When the public is presented with dual narratives, suspicion thrives. In such a scenario, inquisitive journalism doesn’t take sides; it seeks truth. AstraZeneca’s cognizant team should’ve been acutely aware of this.

Fatalities: Where was the human touch? Anchored in compassion, speculations can be easily navigated. True, history has seen its share of post-vaccination fatalities. Germany’s count had scaled to 113 by February’s onset. Yet, these instances spanned multiple manufacturers with no evident causative link to the vaccine itself. But AstraZeneca’s initial silence, followed by a somewhat clinical response to thrombosis cases, projected an air of detachment. Such dispassionate crisis communication inevitably stirs public skepticism.

Outdated Data: Any reputable company knows that before releasing significant data, two things must be ensured: its timeliness and a unanimous front with all involved parties. The omission of consultation with NIAID cast a shadow of deceit over AstraZeneca. The subsequent rectification of just-released test results not only tainted their reputation but burdened them with unnecessary costs.

Contractual Quandaries: The age-old issue of insufficient dialogue resurfaced. Had AstraZeneca breached its commitment with the EU? Or was the commitment nebulous from the start? Such ambiguities should’ve been settled long ago. Instead of harmonious negotiations, what unfurled were delays, blame games, and even a hint of defiance towards the very people it sought to serve.

Questionable Strategy: While embroiled in a legal tiff with the EU over delivery lags, AstraZeneca paradoxically patted itself on the back in April 2021. Their self-praise for being the COVAX programme’s prime supplier seemed ill-timed, especially when their commitment elsewhere was under scrutiny.

Public Sentiment: The numbers don’t lie. A staggering 225.3 million statements regarding AstraZeneca poured in over a span of 7.5 months since late summer 2020. Alarmingly, a significant chunk leaned negative. Notably, the most vocal critics belonged to the 25-34 age bracket — a demographic every business vies to charm.

Financial Fallouts: The aftermath was undeniable. A plunge of 9.3% in market value over a mere half year, translating to a loss of $11.5 billion from autumn 2020 to spring 2021.

Yet, AstraZeneca wasn’t the sole casualty. The ripple effect ensnared politicians, authorities, industry magnates, and the scientific community. One glaring casualty was the vaccination drive. AstraZeneca’s missteps provided fodder for anti-vax proponents. Trust, especially when it involves health, is a fragile entity. This saga wasn’t just about AstraZeneca; it resonated with everyone, for vaccination touches upon the core of human existence — ourselves and our loved ones.

What AstraZeneca should have done to calm the crisis waves?

Drawing from my 20 years of experience in health and crisis communication, I assure you, this episode is reminiscent of past scenarios.

I propose a three-step approach for AstraZeneca’s crisis management:

  1. AstraZeneca needs to take the lead in media coverage. AstraZeneca ought to steer its narrative. For too long, the voices of external authorities, experts, and politicians have shaped conversations about the company and its vaccine. The company needs to make itself heard and seen, with its own stories. It cannot hide from media any longer. As soon as there is relevant news to be published, it must be released to the public, even when it’s unpleasant.  

2. AstraZeneca must align its wording with researchers, developers, management, and all other involved departments.

  • Those responsible must exchange views on study results, incidents, risks, current state of deliveries.
  • Corporate communication must be aligned internally. Key messages are to be defined and discussed with those involved. 
  • Is there a manageable amount of people involved and responsible parties within the project “Covid Vaccine”? Define at most two people as spokespeople for inquiries. 

3. AstraZeneca needs a long-term plan to strengthen its reputation, as soon as possible.

  • Dear colleagues at AstraZeneca: Look ahead! Brainstorming for a long-acting program helps. People love stories. What kind of stories should you tell? What kind of stories about a pharmaceutical company would you like to read, see, hear? And what action must be taken for those stories to come to life?
  • Crises in your own company lead to your customers and observers developing an increasingly positive perception of your competitors. Keep this in mind. Praise your rivals for reporting on study results or advances in vaccination campaigns. Generosity and fairness pay off – in personal relationships, in business, and in dealing with media.
  • The company needs to focus its measures, clearly targeting its main markets: Europe and North America. Initiatives such as the aggressive promotion of deliveries to the COVAX alliance compete with this. A clear-cut case of cannibalism: What positive effect can voluntary, large deliveries have when obligations towards important customers cannot be fulfilled?

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