Can Pharma Find Reputation Redemption?

Experts discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has given the pharmaceutical industry a unique moment to transform decades of public trust issues.

Print this page

It is an extremely unique year, and one that has brought the pharmaceutical industry to the top of people’s minds on a nearly daily basis. Both treatment solutions and the development of a vaccine have driven the industry into media headlines, where they will stay for the foreseeable future. On September 29, 2020, the School’s Center on Global Brand Leadership, Healthcare and Pharmaceutical Management Program, and The Harris Poll brought together industry leaders from Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer and experts from The Harris Poll and kyu to discuss the opportunities and challenges that the pharma industry faces to continue its reputation redemption during the pandemic and afterwards.

“I came to Pfizer 13 years ago to work on the thing that drove us to this panel today,” began Sally Susman, EVP and chief corporate affairs officer, “Which is, how is it that an industry that makes life saving medicine could have as much of a reputation struggle as we’ve had over the years? I thought this would be easy to fix. I spent over a decade trying to fix it and not succeeding. Now, everything has changed because of this moment that we are in.”


Rob Jekielek, managing director at The Harris Poll, set the stage for the discussion by noting the 22 point increase in positive public perception of the pharmaceutical industry since January 2020. While most sectors of the economy saw a reputation boost in the early half of 2020, Jekielek noted their data shows that, “while ‘COVID fatigue,’ if you will, has settled in across a wide variety of other industries… we are actually seeing a lot of resilience in the [pharmaceutical] industry’s reputation.”

Looking deeper into the data, Jekielek noted that 38% of respondents, in their September 17-21 polling week, had a more positive opinion about the pharmaceutical industry, with one key driver being cross-company collaboration. “The public has positively perceived this move towards really finding a solution and working together versus just going at it alone.” However, there are still 18% of people who have a more negative perception and feel the industry is not yet doing enough to put people’s health ahead of business interests. In addition, the nation’s political climate is intertwined with the scientific battle to combat COVID-19, and Jekielek shared a STAT News-Harris Poll effort conducted in August 2020 which found 72% of Republicans and 82% of Democrats agreeing with the statement, “I worry the vaccine approval process is being driven more by politics than science.”


Given these public concerns, Bunny Ellerin, director of the Healthcare and Pharmaceutical Management Program, asked about what drove the “Stand With Science” pledge—signed in early September by nine pharmaceutical companies. Michael Sneed, EVP, global corporate affairs and CCO at Johnson & Johnson, noted that the leaders in the field came together on this because, “People were so passionate about making sure that everybody knew exactly where we stood with regards to the importance of science and how we develop not only vaccines, but drugs in general, and how it is all driven by science… It has given us the opportunity to continue to better educate all sorts of stakeholders on just what the industry does and how it can impact people's lives.”

Jekielek noted, however, that the sped-up development and testing time frames, combined with the politicization around the vaccine, has caused public confidence in it—across all demographics—to wane over the course of the year. “Pharma companies are among the most trusted sources of information about the vaccine,” he noted encouragingly. “That’s why something like the pledge works.”

“When it comes to companies like Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, we understand the long-term investments that are needed… It is in no one’s best interest to cut corners, or to be pressured into doing something that we don’t absolutely feel is in the best interest of the public,” Sneed commented. “That’s why you are seeing movement on the increased collaboration we spoke about, and frankly increased transparency. It’s something that I know Pfizer has done and that J&J has done for several years with our Yale University Open Data Access (YODA) initiative. Because we believe the more the public understands what happens, they actually will feel better. At J&J, we are able to move more quickly because we have used our vaccine platform on things like Ebola, Zika, and H1N1 already... We have actually been planning for this moment for years and years.” Susman echoed this very succinctly by stating, “We are moving precisely at the speed of science.”

“I think the sustainability of this is what is really, really exciting,” noted John Breen, executive director of health strategy at Kyu. “I think of this as cohesion in times of urgency, and all the things we are learning right now, and then how do we continue to apply that to other areas of need, and how do we create the right incentives for companies to partner with each other… I would love to see the day where pharma is truly seen as the guardians of public health.” 


Susman emphasized that, “The next hurdle will be the distribution—and by that I don’t mean delivery—I mean the moral, ethical, and political issues that surround who will get these vaccines first and how will we distribute these vaccines in a way that is moral, ethical, and strategic so that we can combat our common enemy, the virus.”

Following up on these ethical implications, Ellerin asked the panelists to address the healthcare disparities that the pandemic has brought to the forefront. “One of the things that I, and others should really take a hard look at,” stated Sneed, “is that the pandemic has really exposed the fragility of our healthcare system, and that it does not work for all people in the same way. Your health, and the prospect for longevity, really shouldn’t be a reflection of your race. From my perspective there is a direct link between racial justice and healthcare.” The panelists stressed the need to get greater representation of people of color into clinical trials, into the workforces of healthcare companies, and into programs that encourage people of color to enter the healthcare industry. “[At Pfizer,] reducing healthcare disparities is now part of our core mission, and needs to be as rigorous as everything else we do,” noted Susman. “I’ve really tried to be careful not to say we will have a ‘new normal,’ because I think we need to have a ‘better normal,’” agreed Sneed. “To go back to where we were is not going to be good enough when you are talking about people of color. That normal was not good enough to them to begin with.”

All of the panelists also expressed support for an “all-in” strategy, as Susman called it, in terms of the communication efforts that will be necessary to continue to build trust in both the COVID-19 vaccines as well as the industry at large moving forward. Mention was made of the importance of all stakeholders—from doctors and nurses, to leading hospital groups, to friends and family, to community leaders and influencers, to the vaccine participants themselves (some of whom are already showing interest)—to play roles in supporting a trust in science and pushing the pharmaceutical industry to build on its collaboration, transparency, and commitments to positively affect healthcare disparities.

articles by Topic