Public Relations & Crisis Management

Crisis Management Case Study: The Mishaps of AstraZeneca’s Vaccine Rollout

By: Alex Hurley, PR Manager

So, your company finds itself in a crisis…now, what?

Let’s start from the beginning — an organizational crisis can basically be defined as events that can damage your organization’s business and harm its image. There are various strategies and tactics you can utilize to repair its image.

However, for the purpose of this blog, we are going to focus on the strategies (good and bad) that other companies have used in the past and study the missteps used during a crisis by one company in particular (AstraZeneca) to help serve as a cautionary tale of what not to do in a crisis.

Communications expert and veteran, William Benoit, developed the Image Restoration Theory, which provides restoration strategies that individuals or businesses that are in a crisis have used in the past — not all of which are effective or recommended. The Image Restoration Theory includes the following strategies:

Denial – company denies that the act/event occurred or shifts the blame to someone else. This only works if the company is truly blameless.
Evading Responsibility – company, unable to deny the act in question, attempts to evade responsibility.
Reducing Offensiveness – company attempts to reduce the degree of negative feelings experienced by publics. This could be done through various ways, including bolstering, which is used to mitigate the negative effects by reminding the audience of the good deeds that the company in crisis has done in the past. Reducing offensiveness can also be achieved through minimization efforts to convince the audience that the act in question is less serious than it appears.
Corrective Action – company says it will correct the problem. This can involve restoring the situation to its prior state or promising to make changes to prevent it from ever occurring.
Mortification – company admits responsibility and ask for forgiveness.

When a crisis happens, how do you know which strategy to use? First, you must analyze your situation and your target audience. Based on several studies by Benoit, the main recommendation is for an organization to immediately admit fault/accept responsibility if they committed the act. Second, corrective actions should be taken, and an organization needs to publicize those actions.

Now, let’s analyze AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine crisis and review the missteps it used along the way. AstraZeneca, the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company based in Cambridge, England, and University of Oxford partnered with each other to develop and distribute the first COVID-19 vaccine on course to hit the global market. However, halted trials, inconsistent data, and lack of transparency caused a decrease of trust in the vaccine. Below is a timeline of events and blunders the company made when handling the crisis.

Spring – Summer 2020: AstraZeneca Vaccine on Track to Win Global Race
During the spring and summer of 2020, AstraZeneca seemed to be on track to win the closely watched global race in developing an effective vaccine for COVID-19. The company signed deals with international organizations and governments, including the U.S., to produce doses of its vaccine. These entities agreed to pay AstraZeneca millions of billions of dollars to cover the costs of clinical trials, manufacturing facilities and other costs to produce the vaccine.

In July 2020, the AstraZeneca vaccine cleared a major safety hurdle as the University of Oxford published the results of the Phase I human clinical trials in the medical journal The Lancet, which reported the vaccine as being safe and seemingly producing a strong immune response based on lab tests of blood samples from those who participated. With this endorsement, the company’s vaccine was underway to be named the first approved COVID-19 vaccine globally. As a result, its stock soared causing an all-time high for the company, making it the most valuable on the FTSE 100 share index.

Fall – Winter 2020: Problems Arise…
The good favor for the vaccine all changed in September 2020 when STAT News broke the story and announcement that the clinical trials of AstraZeneca had been stopped globally after a volunteer in the U.K. trial developed serious neurological symptoms. This announcement presented the first problem in the AstraZeneca crisis in that the company did not break the news itself. This lack of communication and full transparency caused distrust with the public.

Upon this newsbreak, the company issued a couple of statements – neither of which provided clarification or transparency into why exactly the trials were halted or when they would resume. In fact, both statements utilized the Reducing Offensive strategy from the Image Restoration Theory by minimizing the severity of the situation and bolstering of the good the company was doing.

In November 2020, AstraZeneca announced study results that the vaccine was safe and effective, but the data shown was not consistent. The results combined data from trials conducted with differing protocols and provided two different efficacy figures— a “blended average” showed the vaccine was about 70% effective, but in one small subgroup of the clinical trial, in which participants were given a half-dose of the vaccine and then a full-dose booster weeks later, the vaccine seemed to be 90% effective. In the larger group given two full doses, it was only 62% effective. The presentation puzzled virologists.

Confusion deepened when AstraZeneca officials told reporters the half-dose regimen was the result of a mistake. Oxford scientists, however, initially disputed this characterization, noting that they knew they were giving people half-doses. It also emerged the subgroup that received this half-dose regimen included no one over the age of 55, raising further doubts about how to interpret the study’s high efficacy figures. With elderly patients being a crucial high-risk cohort, some experts also questioned whether enough older adults were included in the overall trial, as they are needed to gauge effectiveness in those over 65.

Spring 2021: Trust is Further Eroded
By December 2020, the U.K became the first country to approve the vaccine. But heading into 2021, regulators continued to question the data for participants 65 years and older. In March 2021, new data provided by AstraZeneca showed the vaccine had a 79% efficacy rate against symptomatic COVID-19 and 100% efficacy rate against hospitalization and death. However, the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) and Data and Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB) issued statements warning that data might be outdated, incorrect and misleading. Their statements accused the company of contributing to the erosion of public trust in the scientific process.

AstraZeneca defended their efficacy rate, but later released new data claiming the vaccine was 76% effective—lower than what they had originally stated. Their inconsistency with data and communication further damaged their reputation and trust with publics.

In April 2021, the European Union’s medical regulator, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), announced rare blood clotting conditions had affected a handful of people who received the AstraZenca and were likely caused from the vaccine. The agency ordered the company to carry more tests to investigate. Once news of the blood clots emerged, Denmark stopped the rollout. Germany, France and Italy suspended the vaccine as well. This news continued to make people more hesitant to take the vaccine, which had already suffered from doubts about its efficacy, safety and supply.

Planning for the unexpected is no easy challenge. It’s even tougher to execute the plan when tensions are high. Our agency develops and delivers multi-faceted crisis communications plans that turn your crises into opportunities and garner the optimal media coverage to ensure your stories are heard. Contact us today for more information!

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