The world was waiting. Oxford University and its partners at AstraZeneca were under unprecedented pressure to develop and deliver life-saving vaccines against COVID-19 in record time.
A crisis broke out shortly after the first doses were administered earlier this year. There were incidents, albeit isolated, of patients complaining of blood clots and bleeding after receiving their shots. Yet, social media and media storms ensued.
James Colman, head of public affairs at Oxford University, made an unusual choice. Instead of reducing access to information, he went the other way.
University communicators made available more information about the situation. They encouraged media interviews. Unusually, especially in academia, Oxford focused on access and telling personal stories of those involved.
“If people can see it, they can see the people [and processes] behind [what we’re doing]. There are human stories behind what we’re attempting to achieve,” Colman told me.
Exposing the emotional elements of a story during a PR crisis can be extraordinarily powerful. Unfortunately, it is too often deemed an unacceptable risk. Yet, the team at Oxford was able to employ storytelling effectively during these difficult days.
A Film Helps Douse Rumors
The team brought in documentary crews from the BBC and CNN into their labs and lives. The resulting film helped reveal in a compelling way the people behind the vaccine. Viewers were able to see with their own eyes what went into the research and rigorous tests.
As Nature Magazine wrote, “All the groups painstakingly balance the need to be careful and methodical with the pressure to create and test a vaccine faster than ever before.”
Ultimately, their openness helped reassure an anxious public. When faced with unreasonable and unfounded criticisms, Oxford researchers did not just push data down from the ivory tower. They were willing to talk through the concerns and even share their personal struggles during the process.
Colman noted that there was also a commitment “never to criticize anyone,” which enabled those working on the vaccine to remain authoritative sources, even for patients who were skeptical.
Many case studies likely will be done about Oxford’s management of the viral rumors and disinformation that accompanied deployment of the first doses.
It seems clear that one of the early lessons is how important it can be in the middle of a PR crisis to zoom out the conversation.
Do not be afraid to show a more personal side, even if it reflects some of the problems you face. In the end, it is likely to earn you, your company and its products more credibility.
Brett Bruen teaches crisis at Georgetown University and served as President Obama’s director of global engagement. He is president of the Global Situation Room.