Case study – Helping to set up crisis systems for the world’s largest vaccine producer

Project background: The largest company in the world focused only on the production of vaccines. It has discovered vital vaccines since its constituent companies were formed. It has a reputation for excellent science, the highest ethical standards and superior products. As with all vaccine companies, it is vulnerable to critical — sometimes hyper-critical — coverage in media and social media linked to four major groups of issues:

  • production difficulties – vaccines are complex biological products so batches may fail. This may lead to periods when the vaccines are not available or where there are shortages
  • adverse events — all vaccines cause some adverse events, mostly very trivial ones. Serious adverse events are rare but are possible. Much more common are unfortunate coincidences: a person receives a preventative vaccine shortly before becoming ill for some other reason but, because the vaccine was given shortly before the illness started, an erroneous link becomes established
  • failure to work — no vaccine is 100 percent successful in preventing the disease that it is designed to combat
  • activism — vaccines provoke strong negative sentiments, sometimes helped by lawyers who see a commercial opportunity but often, apparently, because those with alternative ideas about disease and treatment see vaccines as a particularly objectionable example of conventional medicine

Baird’s CMC has helped them with a number of specific media challenges (including the company’s inability to produce rabies vaccine for almost eighteen months, erroneous reports of deaths attributed to influenza vaccines and multiple projects on influenza and pandemic influenza vaccines) however it would not be appropriate to discuss these outside the company. The client has an experienced, professional internal communications team and well established crisis communications procedures. The challenge was to secure senior management acceptance of these and to give senior managers experience in real-life crisis scenarios. Project strategy: A Baird’s CMC team worked with them to develop:

  • a briefer version of the established protocols
  • a series of flow diagrams on what to do after specific kinds of events (e.g. a hostile media story or a social media trend)
  • a series of 2-day training sessions for country general managers and for senior managers at headquarters
  • a series of training sessions for country and regional communications directors

Before participants came to the training sessions, they were sent a work pack of examples of how media had dealt with other stories and a series of scenarios for the training sessions The training for GMs ran through the agreed procedures but focused on a set of scenarios (For example, the Indian GM has been arrested following a claim by a family that their daughter had been injured by an influenza vaccine). In each, small groups were asked to agree next steps and messages. Then, GMs were asked to practise in language groups (English, French and Spanish — the English groups were split into those for native speakers and those practising in English but who might reasonably be expected to usually give interviews in their mother tongue). Each group had a trainer who ran through interviews on camera in a series of different formats (print, live TV, recorded TV, live radio). Each participant was given feedback by the group and by the trainer after each interview. The training for communications staff covered much of the same ground but focused on how to work with the relevant teams at headquarters, how to issue statements and how to prioritise media enquiries. Project impact: Surveys amongst participants showed that they understood the media better, felt more confident in dealing with them and felt that they had been more effective in managing crises. The programme was repeated three times. The Baird’s CMC advantage:

  • Our widespread global network enabled us to reach out to provide multi-lingual training
  • Our senior staff includes a number of people with a very good understanding of infectious disease who can help turn complex medical issues into accessible language for the media
  • Our established crisis management methodology and tools meant that we could provide advice, guidelines and resources
  • Many of our senior staff are former journalists and so are able to give real insight into what journalists need and expect when they are covering stories