The pandemic has disrupted every facet of life, making many things more complicated and others more apparent than ever. For pharma, this is a unique inflection point.

For many companies, the path forward will largely depend on how well they consider and connect with the audiences that matter most. And the best connections come from a place of purpose and honesty.

But connections aren’t easy in this volatile landscape. And for those tasked with advancing COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines, the scrutiny makes the stakes higher than ever.

Some pharma companies will rise to the occasion. They will emerge with a stronger vision and purpose, and new influence and growth opportunities. And perhaps something even more valuable: a clearer understanding of who they are and how they matter. This is a chance to transcend the transactional – to make a personal impact with a human touch.  

Today, longtime competitors have set aside their rivalries and pledged their common commitment to public health in a unified, reputation-raising effort for the entire industry. Some are even open sourcing their proprietary data, while others are donating product to the cause.

These magnanimous efforts could hasten a therapeutic or preventive intervention for COVID-19 and help spare countless lives – while reinvigorating the economy.

The industry’s unified efforts to address the pandemic – to battle a global existential threat – has the potential to galvanize company reputations and burnish their brands. It could boost stock value and bolster patient and provider confidence in the ways they work to serve communities and address needs.

So how can pharma companies best meet this singular moment? By genuinely acknowledging their audiences’ angst, uncertainties – and hopes for the future. Whether they are employees, investors, patients, healthcare providers (HCPs), research partners, suppliers, legislators or regulators. 

Now, when everything from patient journeys to supply chains is scrambled, sure-footed, purpose-driven communication will carry the day, helping to navigate a path toward an unseen future that feels murkier than ever.

If you’re charged with marketing or communication for a pharma company, now is the time to step back and evaluate your current narrative for key audiences. Be sure that your  communications approach remains relevant in this fluid environment, when a disease outbreak can upend everything.

Recognize that your stakeholders’ world view has changed. Their priorities, values and attention spans have shifted. Yet they are still looking for guidance, assurance, answers and expertise.

If you’re uncertain of your stakeholders’ mindsets – or whether your messages are resonating – consider auditing your stakeholder communications, reassessing your messaging platforms or even conducting a perceptions survey.

In words and tone, platform and positioning, be intentional, authentic and compassionate. Focus on your audience’s needs first and pay attention to how the pandemic is affecting them.

Here’s how to think about connecting with three common stakeholder groups now.

Show patient groups you care – credibly
Patients are suffering from whiplash. On one hand, they are traumatized by coronavirus causalities – and a host of health conditions that may (or may not) increase their individual risk. They seek comfort and reassurance, as well as acknowledgement of their distress over the pandemic.

Yet many are also delaying routine preventive care and vaccinations. The patient journey has always been complex, but now there are more nuances and variables, creating the need for tailored and focused communication strategies to reach different patient segments.

Complications have grown with COVID-19, with attention spans shorter, anxiety higher and the need for precise communications even greater. Now is the time to re-evaluate your approach to ensure that you’re communicating authentically – and with humanity.

To be authentic, aim for realism and honesty. Acknowledge that while the pandemic challenges all of us, patients must still pay attention to other health conditions and prioritize good health habits.

Share patient stories of inspiration and survival. These narratives will resonate strongly, especially if they reflect the struggles and imperfections of real people. Be sure your patients can see themselves in the patients you portray.

In addition, patients know a faceless organization or entity can’t really care about them – but a relatable patient story, a caring medical officer or lab researcher can embody the compassion we all need. Let them know you are an organization of real people who share their concerns every day, especially in this moment.

Connect professionally and personally with physician groups
Physicians and other healthcare providers juggle multiple roles every day. They have precious little time – and often, overlapping loyalties and pressures.

HCPs are at the front line of their patients’ well-being and responsible for access to care. They are also at the front line of the coronavirus pandemic.

They are beholden to their health system for its profitability and development, and worried about bringing routine care back to their medical settings, which has been disrupted by the pandemic. To stay afloat, they need to be on point for reimbursement. They’re also expected to stay abreast of emerging science and studies.

Remember that, on top of these pressures, they are constantly bombarded with new data and emerging research from institutions and investigators. So the easier your data is to read – and the more concise – the likelier your content will make an impression.

And instead of focusing on the numbers, focus on the insights from the data: how it can make their jobs easier and make their interactions with patients more productive.

Woo the research community with stories
Amid the complexity of scientific exchange, it’s easy to become fixated on data points. But using storytelling techniques to share your data can bring the main conclusions and takeaways to life.

All humans – yes, even highly analytical researchers – are wired to respond emotionally to stories. And stories make stats stickier.

Even simple narratives add context and purpose to data, transforming it from hypotheses, conclusions, figures and tables into a compelling case for new thinking and action.

When brought to life with relatable examples, anecdotes and applications, scientific data can be a revelation. Analyses can help shape new thinking about a disease category or an investigational treatment or help further define how to overcome the unmet needs of patients.

Step back and remember the bigger impact you have on the end user – ultimately, that’s the researcher’s holy grail, too.

The prize
Can the pharma industry seize this high-stakes moment to renew its reputation – and live up to its lifesaving promise? Pharma is in the floodlights now. It cannot operate without considering how the pandemic has affected its key audiences – and will continue to impact and influence their lives.

The companies that shine will be the ones whose words and actions align with their highest values – and who can speak authentically and effectively to the needs of their most essential audiences.

This article was initially published in O’Dwyer’s Healthcare issue.

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