Capital Markets Corporate Healthcare & Life Sciences

April 9, 2020

Coronavirus and reputation – a balancing act

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Successful reputation management within healthcare and life sciences, particularly for those with products or services fully or partly funded by the public purse, is a tight-rope walk, one false step will lead to disaster.

A key risk is the perception of profit before patients. How do you overcome the cynics who doubt the sector can serve two masters – the need to improve, or even save, lives and the requirement to satisfy investors?

A basic answer is that what’s good for patients is good for investors, so people always come first and doing what’s right for them will best serve the interests for the long term. But across health provision, and in particular within the pharmaceutical industry, there are plenty of examples of companies getting it wrong. Accused of short-term avarice, companies have been taken to task for perceived profiteering. Some have been rightly found guilty of exploitation with unjustifiable price rises and have been fined or censured.

For many though, the situation is not so cut and dried. There are subtleties to an argument often lost on audiences with a simpler view of the world. Healthcare is probably no better or worse than any other sector but it’s unique connection to human well-being makes financial returns fraught with reputational risk.

At the time of a global health crisis those risks are even greater.  Customers, consumers or any of a company’s internal or external audiences won’t forget or forgive quickly, if at all, mistakes during coronavirus.

However, this shouldn’t create inertia or persuade companies to stop communicating. On the contrary, the COVID-19 crisis requires the expert voice of authority that healthcare and pharmaceutical companies can bring.

Assessing the reputational risk of financial and operational decisions in a thorough and scientific way can result in reputations being protected and enhanced, with audiences enjoying a better understanding and appreciation of a company’s story as a result.

Companies are leading by example. AbbVie gave up its patents on a combination medicine, Kaletra, being studied as a coronavirus treatment, becoming the first major drug maker to drop its rights to make money from a product that might be used during the pandemic.

Johnson & Johnson announced that it is working to get a vaccine into testing in September and – with US government support – has put $1bn into its development.  If successful, the vaccine would be available on a not-for-profit basis.

In the UK, the independent hospital sector, led by quoted firms such as Spire Healthcare, signed a deal with the Government to provide capacity at a cost-only basis to support the need for extra beds. Engineering firms are racing to make thousands more ventilators for intensive care units.

There are many good examples of how private and public organisations across healthcare systems are working together, regardless of their funding structure.

Doing the right thing now will bank goodwill and build trust. This can be the basis for a future where collaborative conversations in healthcare and life sciences start with how we can work together, not why.

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