Former U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Jerome Adams, said he had learnt the hard way that delivering a clear message in a fast-changing situation was not easy, after getting embroiled in a face mask row when his tweet “STOP BUYING MASKS!” went viral in February 2020. It was a difficult moment that has stayed with him.
“We didn't have all the information. China hadn't shared with us that they had seen up to 50% of spread in asymptomatic individuals, which made this unlike any other virus. So, we were pushing to be first. We were using our credibility to try and put out an important public health message to protect public health workers, but we didn't have all the information. It’s that famous Colin Powell 40/70 rule. If you speak before you have 40% of the information, you're more likely to be wrong. If you wait until you have 70%, it’s going to be too late. We thought we were speaking within that 40/70 window. The truth is we didn't have 40% of the information.”
The episode underscored for Adams both the influence of Twitter and the challenge of finding the right platform for specific communications.
“There are different forums and different formats for different messages. It is critical to understand that we can’t get into a detailed conversation about how we are going to determine vaccine efficacy or the vaccine adverse reporting system on a three-minute CNN interview, but we can in a long-form Wall Street Journal article or an op-ed. So, we need to have the appropriate conversation in the appropriate venue.”
This point was echoed by Pfizer’s Global Head of Communications, Ed Harnaga, whose team moved rapidly early in the pandemic to explain the company’s vaccine strategy to a U.S. and global audience. However, finding the appropriate channel was tricky and a carefully drafted op-ed from Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla proved surprisingly hard to place, despite the intense media interest in COVID-19.
“We put together what I thought was a very strong op-ed and we tried pitching this to so many different news outlets. And it was amazing how it was just turned down across the board – and the rationale was: it wasn't edgy enough, we weren't being political enough, which shocked us because here we're trying to rise above the politics…. So, we decided to turn it into an open letter from Albert that we put out to colleagues and then we put out on our own channels. We put it out on pfizer.com. We put it out through our social channels. What was amazing is that the same outlets that said, you know, it's not edgy enough for the opinion pages, still then reported on this as news.”
A notable feature of the pandemic has been the elevated transparency and speed with which scientists from both academia and industry have disclosed research findings. The resulting tidal wave of information has been a major communications challenge, both for the organizations that generated it and the journalists who struggled to digest it.
Nonetheless, Harnaga believes the system of rapid disclosure triggered by the pandemic – which was turbo-charged by use of pre-prints, where research is posted online before peer review – is here to stay.
“I think preprint servers are something that we're going to see more of. it's something that we're looking at more, not just for COVID but for other areas. It's this whole idea of the fast-moving news cycle and needing to get something out there.”
Wall Street Journal healthcare and pharmaceutical reporter Jared Hopkins said he was braced for a continuing fast pace of breaking news, even after the pandemic ends, which will demand a pool of specialist expertise in the media.
“I think a lot of what’s happened during the pandemic from a media perspective is only going to probably continue and accelerate. There’s only going to be more information coming out constantly, more demand and more of a constant news flow. I don’t know if that is good or bad – but I guess it means more work for all of us.”