Barnaby 2.0 offers hope for AstraZeneca’s Aussie PR issues

Founder and principal at The Drill, Gerry McCusker, looks at a possible way forward for a vaccine's image makeover.

AstraZeneca’s (AZ) COVID vaccine has a huge amount of PR equity to capitalise upon: genius scientists, Dame Sarah Gilbert, speed-of-light development, easy storage, at-cost price and at-volume provision, and a commitment to ongoing cheap supply of an anti-virus solution with a 75%+ efficacy rate. But down under, no-one’s talking up that. For after sporadic safety issues, multiple brand attacks, an EU legal action plus a seemingly tame PR defence of its brand reputation (as well as many puzzling internal mis-steps), many Australians are now eyeing the AZ vaccine with cynical suspicion.

Without exploring the full A-to-Z of AZ’s woes, AstraZeneca clearly needs to overcome its negative PR problems in Australia. And flamboyant Aussie politician Barnaby Joyce could be an inspirational, albeit unlikely, hero for the AZ team.

As Australia’s newest political Lazarus, Barnaby has reclaimed leadership supremacy of the National party and Deputy PM-ship, only a few years after a series of alleged scandals including

  • an intra-staff affair and pregnancy
  • allegations of groping
  • claims of immoderate drinking
  • being key inspiration for Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘bonk ban’
  • accepting free luxury house rental from a building developer mate
  • demanding privacy, then co-hawking the story of his love-affair for cash, etc…

Some of the above helped end his position as the leader of Australia’s Nationals back in 2018. Barnaby was, back then, viewed by some as the punchline to a bad PR joke.

Reputation resurrection

But Barnaby’s ‘boomerang PR’ (also variously proven by Boris Johnson, Tiger Woods and ‘the Donald’) proves that reputation resurrection is clearly possible nowadays, which may be of some comfort to a beleaguered AZ brand team.

Ill-repute needn’t terminate your business or brand; which is making me ponder the value of having ‘a good name’ at all.

Of course, making a medicine with a potentially fatal side-effect is a huge problem to overcome. Asserting good news when negative side-effects and even fatalities are present, is very challenging. But not all vaccines have had the backlash that AZ has encountered.

If AZ is to staunch any further PR blood-loss down under (and loss of public trust while positioned as a cornerstone of planned world vaccination efforts), then – from my un-briefed position – it could be addressing the well-identified flies in its ointment, with activity designed to:

  • Research, evolve and fix its product ‘defects’, then launch an ‘AZ 2.0’ version
  • Comprehensively track and quash erroneous ‘trans-media’ claims about its vaccine
  • Proactively identify and re-engage with its global influencer (media, political, regulatory, scientific) matrix
  • Better craft and market consistent ‘news’ content that strongly emphasise the vaccine’s manifest qualities and reassures all concerned ‘publics’
  • More rigorously manage and release accurate test data, making the figures and the brand less vulnerable to attack and derision
  • Robustly contextualise and rebuff manifold attacks on brand safety and efficacy

Of course, AZ could opt to do what Barnaby did: loiter quietly in the shadows waiting for the right opportunity to fall back into favour (though negative PR baggage can still cling to you).

Passive stance vs proactive strategy?

But there’s a difference between a passive stance and a proactive and directional strategy (such as J&J’s legendary Tylenol defence). I’d venture that AZ’s influential stakeholders would be more reassured by the latter, than the former.

In our issues management training, we talk about ‘unsustainable positions’ (as part of our checklist methodology for issues and crisis comms). In Australia, the AstraZeneca name is at the apex of vaccine hesitancy; therefore ,at risk of sustained reputation erosion. An unenviable position. What takes an organisation like that to safe ground is a strategy that is absolutely solid in its aims, creativity, ethos and execution.

A post-reputation world?

One of my closest Comms peers recently remarked: “We are living in a post-reputation world.”

And, so – as Barnaby Joyce’s experience in Australia indicates – maybe a pristine reputation is not as necessary as it used to be?

Passively hopeful or proactively protective? Leaders at AstraZeneca may find out which produces the best results – especially to personal reputation cost or gain – pretty soon.

Gerry McCusker is the founder and principal at The Drill.


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