Communicating vaccine research in a pandemic
Ruth Francis spoke to Steve Pritchard, strategic communications manager at the University of Oxford, about how they managed the intense, ongoing coverage.
As we live through the COVID-19 pandemic, health and medical research remains at the top of the news agenda. For media officers, particularly those at institutions working on COVID, the pressure has been intense.
At the University of Oxford, researchers developed one of the first COVID-19 vaccines approved, and their partners AstraZeneca pledged to make no profit on the vaccine during the pandemic. The team has been part of an astonishing story that has shifted both global management of COVID-19 and changed vaccinology forever. We spoke to Steve Pritchard, strategic communications manager at the University of Oxford, about how Steve managed the intense, ongoing coverage.
Q: The story of COVID-19 vaccine development has required sensitivity and accuracy, all under intense and constant pressure. How have you found it?
SP: There was something very immediate about the pandemic. Suddenly everyone was interested in epidemiology, public health measures and then vaccines. We spent a long time bouncing from one opportunity to another, and now it’s a bit quieter we have time to breathe. Much of the credit for the success is the researchers, who are good at communication, and our communications director, who has a clarity of mission. He's good at asking what it is that the University wants, and takes the long view. We often ask how people will reflect on what we said if we look one year into the future?
Q: You previously worked on a range of strategically planned-out communications campaigns about University research. How did your job shift with the pandemic to focus on vaccines?
SP: In early 2020, our researchers were collaborating on this emerging infectious disease and thought we should record some of it, perhaps for posterity, thinking it could be like SARS and only last a few months. It got progressively worse, and we stopped other research campaigns, initially to support the SARS-CoV-2 research efforts, and then the vaccines.
As for my own move over, I began by supporting a couple of documentary crews, then in July 2020, I managed media for Andrew Pollard, the Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, for a big announcement day. And it went from there.
Q. Aside from the intense pressure, and of course remote working, are there other things you’ve had to do differently?
SP: I think we're the most published vaccine project because we've been very, very clear that we want to be open about our science. But because we're partnered with AstraZeneca there are stringent rules about how to announce anything that could have an impact on their share price. We had to adapt to a new process, working around how companies communicate to the stock market, with a small circle of people in the loop. There were teething problems, but we’ve improved and become more familiar with that process, as well as how to collaborate across organisations and across time zones. We’ve become more comfortable being uncomfortable, which is important.
Q. How did you handle the queries about side effects that arose over time and played out under intense scrutiny.
SP: Again, credit to our communications director who believes our mission should be to communicate the science; be led by the science. It's then up to governments and regulators to make decisions about how they use vaccines. This distinction helped us with some difficult moments when things were stressful and everyone was tired and things happened very last minute.
I think there is a sense of ownership over universities and public research that there isn’t about the private sector, so we probably get more scrutiny for that reason. On the flip side, I think we're incredibly trusted, and being honest about not having all the answers can build trust.
Q. What helped?
We were also fortunate that we had some correspondents who'd spent time getting to know the researchers in the (many) years before the pandemic, as having journalists at leading media organisations who both understood the complexity of vaccine research and who were already trusted by the team really helped. These key media contacts, who we were able to work closely with during difficult days and weeks and who we trusted to report the science accurately and clearly, really helped.
Q. Have you noticed any trends in coverage, whether geographically or otherwise?
It's fascinating to see the lifespan of the story. Coverage is tied to where people are in their own pandemic experience. In the UK last year, questions were around efficacy and dosing, but once we had approval, focused on rollout strategies, and later on immune responses in older adults, safety concerns and hesitancy. After Edinburgh’s real world data showed 90% effectiveness against hospitalisation, the narrative moved to when we're going to stop wearing masks. Queries here now are around boosters, but we recently did an interview with four large outlets in Europe and it was like going back to February with safety questions, or even to last November on dosing because of where they are in their rollout.
Q. Do you ever get feedback about the interviews?
Recently Sarah Gilbert, co-creator of the vaccine, got an email following some Australian media interviews saying: “Thank you, I'm going to get my vaccine tomorrow, and I feel really silly for not having already gone. I'm really reassured by what you say.” And these interviews are similar to the ones Sarah was giving at the beginning of the year here.
Q. Any tips for communicators on working in intense and prolonged news situations?
When I went into this role, I sat down and had a coffee with each of the PIs to understand their motivations and discuss what I wanted to achieve. Setting up the relationships from the beginning definitely helped as we went through difficult days and weeks. There’s no special magic, it's just getting to know people, understanding their science and being a good press officer. I also learned from a colleague in a previous job to get a strong and clear core message, distilling it down as much as possible, and I've tried to bring that into this role.
Q. What have been your highlights?
It continues to be a huge learning experience; I will never again work on such a big story with researchers who break through into the public consciousness in this way. The moments of personal recognition for the team have been amazing. They’ve worked so hard without breaks, so when things like the invitation to Wimbledon and the standing ovation there happen, that’s wonderful.
Personally, I like telling stories about science. I want to encourage people to do science and challenge our perceptions of scientists: of the five spokespeople on this, three are women, and one of the most famous is a woman. Working on a lead Panorama story for the BBC and shaping a narrative on an enormous public health story have been deeply satisfying. But also because I care about gender in STEM, that Barbie doll and knowing Sarah is a role model who young girls will see and realise they can do whatever they want, that’s very cool.
An oral history of Oxford/AstraZeneca: ‘Making a vaccine in a year is like landing a human on the moon’ - Some of the researchers tell their story in an article published in the Guardian on 28 August 2021.
The Vaccine Knowledge Project - a WHO approved source of independent information about vaccines and infectious diseases, managed by the Oxford Vaccine Group, a research group at the University of Oxford.