Could this week have seen the worst ever case of COVIDitus to infect AstraZeneca-Oxford which has a simple vaccine?

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

If you think you’ve had a bad week, imagine what it must have felt like if you ran the Oxford-AstraZeneca PR this week. It started off great, but it just kept getting worse. And so, here is real life case study of how a major multinational science company made  a series of beginner’s errors in announcing their COVID-19 vaccine. 

Daily analysis of how the week turned out for AstraZeneca and Oxford

It began well with a press release on Monday, November 23rd, 2020, announcing the analysis of 23,000 participants in their phase three trial. Needless to say, CNN had them on the show very quickly with Becky Anderson speaking with Professor Adrian Hill, Director of the Oxford University Jenner Institute. She built up an amazing pre-sales pitch, talking about the 70% average effectivity of the vaccine in human trials with no reports of hospitalisations or severe cases of COVID-19. Prof. Hill shares that they tested two different immunization regimens. One was the standard regime where the same dose was administered to patients twice, while the other regimen was first given as half a dose and then the second immunization was given as a full dose. The latter produced efficacy of 90%, which was highly statistically significant, and he said that though they don’t fully understand the matter, they have several ideas as to how it might work and are currently exploring it. 

Photo from CNN

Becky Anderson asks how long it will take them to explore this, to which Prof. Hill, who is in his house, wearing no tie, with a shadow of a beard, poor lighting, camera height positioned wrong, replies, "Probably weeks or months." For an interview that lasted five minutes, it was evidently poorly scripted. To add salt to a seemingly small wound, that same day, Mene Pangalos, the AstraZeneca Executive Vice President who heads up non-oncology research and development, explained to Reuters that a lab error was the reason why some volunteers had received a smaller dose which turned out to be the dose that was said to be 90% effective. In other words, half a dose was apparently more effective than a full dose. Having gone on to undermine the credibility of the vaccine, Mene then says, "The reason we had the half-dose is serendipity," as their researchers underpredicted the dose of the vaccine by half.

Here are two different spokespeople both sharing information that is inconsistent and casts doubt on the reliability of both the research and of the manufacturer. Two days later, on November 25th, a Wednesday, Oxford’s communications manager for vaccines tells CNN that, "The dose selection for any new vaccine is a complicated area, and in exploring methods of dose selection, we discovered one gave a lower dose than expected." So, on separate occasions, three different channels of communication from Oxford and AstraZeneca were all saying slightly different things. On the 26th, Thursday, AstraZeneca says it hopes the world can focus on its positive vaccine news, but industry experts fear a lack of transparency has clouded that, because when they issued their results, they talked about the 23,000 participants, however, they failed to break down the nature of those participants, omitting the fact that in the first group that had the 90% efficacy, all of them were under 50 years old. 

AstraZeneca vs. Pfizer, Moderna, and hackers

Photo from LA Times

Pfizer and Moderna, the other two companies that have shared news of their vaccine trials, have published their results and included rock solid data to back their claims. On the other hand, AstraZeneca now is beginning to look like they they were just in a hurry to get information out. As a result of that, on Thursday, the share price of AstraZeneca had fallen more than 6% since their announcement on Monday. Their plan to make over 3 billion doses of this vaccine should have been a tonic for the share price, but unfortunately, their handling of the communication dragged their share price down. CNN had also asked AstraZeneca and Oxford to put together candidates for interviews, and both declined. These two parties are supposedly working together, but the fact that the media have to approach two different groups to talk about the same vaccine is a recipe for disaster.

As if things were not bad enough, on Friday, the 27th, North Korean hackers were suspected to have carried out a cyber attack against the British coronavirus vaccine developer AstraZeneca, according to Reuters, citing two unnamed sources. There are conspiracy theories going around that Pfizer and Madonna are trying to undermine the test results of the AstraZeneca, but with Prof. Adrian Hill’s interview and with the results of the trials, Oxford and AstraZeneca have lost their credibility. The only person who has given lots of praise has been Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who did that on the 24th. He is a example of one of Wiio’s laws, which states how communication will be misunderstood and how those people with self-interest will amplify or repeat a message without even knowing whether or not it is true. Boris Johnson, in his excitement of having a British champion of a COVID vaccine, has unwittingly amplified and caused even more confusion as to the validity of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine. 

How to avoid a PR disaster like what happened to Oxford and AstraZeneca

In terms of public relations, there are some lessons to learn from this fiasco. One is if you have an announcement, make sure that everything you are saying is correct. Next, if you have a spokesperson for an announcement, make sure that they are media-trained, and give them guidelines on what they can and cannot say. If that person is going to be live on TV, make sure that they are dressed for the part and that they know what not to say. People often make the mistake that a media interview is just to explain what they are being asked, but actually, the bridging technique is all about answering the question with what you would like to tell the audience. Prof. Adrian Hill plainly hasn’t had this training. The next lesson is that there should only be one voice for one message. AstraZeneca and Oxford do not come across like a unified group, and one wonders whether the vaccine has been invented in the same way as they’ve done their communication, which would undermine any credibility they might have.

As you communicate and share information, especially if you have a partnership, avoid Wiio’s law. Information will be misunderstood by all of those who will receive it, so to overcome that, make the information simple and consistent, and make sure the spokespeople are credible, knowledgeable, and that they look the part because, remember, 80% of communication is nonverbal. Oxford and AstraZeneca could have shared their news in a much better way, and as much as a vaccine is needed, their communication should have conveyed a sense of confidence and competence to reassure people. In a week, they started off by issuing a great release and ended with the specter of possibly Korean hackers, proving to be a PR week from hell. So, if you promise to deliver results, make sure you understand how, when, and for whom those results will be, as these are all crucial aspects of your public relations campaign.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from The Conversation

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