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The art of conversation and the elevation of health in society

An interesting thing happened during this awful pandemic.

We began talking to each other again. Actually, talking to each other. And the topic of course was COVID-19.

When the vaccines became available, conversations around science, health and efficacy increased. Of course, utilizing social and digital platforms to seek and find information was critical in our quest for answers, but they were used to complement not substitute for discussion, dialogue and debate. The key attribute we learned in rediscovering personal connectivity is context. What we are experiencing today is the resurgence of science in our lives based on conversation and context.

Healthcare companies – especially pharma companies – have often communicated above and around consumers thinking that other stakeholders carried more import or influence. But COVID-19 leveled the playing field so to speak, uncovering the power of consumer engagement and empowerment. Instead of social and digital technology becoming a crutch for companies, they became a means to an end – a conversation.

Now, it’s about information being ubiquitous and citizen journalism rampant. People’s appetite for more is growing – for context, rationale, meaning, purpose. They want a peek behind the curtain to comprehend the “how” and “why” companies took certain actions, made certain choices, and operated in a manner that was appropriate.

In Science, Context Matters

Context can be seen everywhere. Reality TV is a direct by-product of society’s increasing appetite to comprehend and experience the real dimensions of life, not the ideal placed on us. It’s the same inside organizations. Employees want to be involved with and aware of the choices that leadership is wrestling with or the options that lead to a key decision. Not just the decision itself, but the information and choices that inform it.

In science, context is multi-faceted. It speaks to breadth and depth. It relates to both thinking and emotion. It establishes a point in time and points of reference. Context strengthens arguments and disarms criticism.

It used to be common practice for public communications to be viewed in a vacuum – going from announcement to announcement, and from action to action, without necessarily thinking or worrying much about explaining the interconnectivity. Today, information on the internet lives forever. As a corporate spokesperson, you need to put your opinions, actions and decisions in perspective to mitigate negative or inaccurate interpretations later. You need to “put the past in context with the present and put the present  in context with the future.”

Being an “Insider”

More importantly, context allows for consumers, patients, customers and employees alike to be “insiders” about the organization’s mission, purpose, aspirations, challenges, politics and, in the case of COVID-19, treatment. In so doing, companies can turn adversaries into advocates while gaining new perspectives and insights to inform decision-making. Being an insider is probably the most important benefit an employee strives for today.

Similarly, from a customer perspective, context reinforces benefit of the doubt, while lack of context generates doubt. Context helps pre-empt crises, lack of context fuels crises. Context helps tell a logical, cohesive story about a company’s choices and direction; lack of context paints a picture of a rudderless, leaderless organization.

For all these reasons, the melding factions of language and intent – context – is central to a company’s ability to engage. Decisions are no longer “one and done,” particularly in the age of the internet. The social nature of the internet means that dialogue around your company continues in perpetuity, and few are shy about referencing your seemingly innocuous comments from three years ago to support their argument – comments that can potentially support either side if they lack context. In a world in which people turn to a variety of  sources for information – friends, employees, media, bloggers, politicians – context is what enables you to influence how that information  gets presented and interpreted.

This can sound academic on the surface, but the implications are practical if not critical. More than ever, it’s crucial that your past actions be brought together with your decision-making – to form a complete picture.

Context, in the end, is as much about substance as it is about intent. Bringing details, nuance and connectivity to communications, context widens the aperture and broadens the argument.

A Test for Healthcare Leaders and Communications

Context puts even more pressure on leaders, who may be stronger pure communicators than their forebearers, but who may not be used to connecting the dots between past, current and anticipated future actions. It also puts more pressure on communicators, who more than ever need to understand potentially foreign topics – clinical trials, manufacturing, purchasing, regulations – to be more conversant about the big picture, and to offer better counsel to senior leadership.

Ultimately, everyone involved must be adept at nimbly offering insight and rationale. Business pages and magazines are filled with any number of organizations that have recently done or not done an adequate job at this.

Context and Storytelling in Science

For science-based organizations, an unspoken element to this point has been the relationship between creating context and storytelling. Establishing context is comparable to telling the ongoing story of your endeavor – conveying all its successes and failures in a manner that makes sense based on past events and future expectations.

Accomplishing this requires several considerations:

  • Recognizing that consumers are the primary stakeholder and influencer in the war on disease and a healthy lifestyle.
  • Providing information and data with empathy and emotion.
  • Orchestrating communications from content to context to dissemination to result in dialogue, discussion and debate or conversation.
  • Understanding that social and digital should complement not substitute engagement.
  • Giving communicators full access to information and senior management; they can’t provide context without that.
  • Recognizing that “top down” communications by fiat is no longer beneficial. Today’s successful organizations communicate on a horizontal axis, drawing on numerous voices and numerous communication platforms.
  • Staying current and telling your story in ways large and small. Creating context is an everyday effort, not one that takes place only when there’s a pandemic.
  • Being dynamic – relating information to the audience to make it personally meaningful.
  • Recognizing the organization no longer controls the narrative. Know your influence ecosystem.
  • Employing peripheral vision. Connecting things large and small, in view and out of focus all work in
  • Constantly assessing consumers, patients, customers and employees to discern issues, trends, challenges, frustrations, lifestyle habits, etc.

In the healthcare industry, organizational leaders and communicators have a unique ability to accelerate the current positive perceptions of pharma and guide their companies in a manner that helps constituencies connect the dots among actions, decisions and events. This will create a cohesive, consistent context that makes sense and helps establish confidence.

Giving people a sense of being insiders engenders ownership, which leads to trust and engagement. In the end, a public that is inspired and engaged along with a patient, customer and employee base that is motivated and biased toward your work is perhaps the most sustainable competitive advantage one could hope for.

Gary

Mental health continues to be an unmet need, particularly among underserved populations, and the conventional ways of addressing it have not been successful. Otsuka, a leading pharmaceutical company with a focus on mental health, engaged Real Chemistry to address persistent gaps in treatment with new and innovative solutions.

Working alongside another Otsuka agency partner, Real Chemistry supported the creation of NEXUS (Neuroscience Experts and Cross-Sector Unconventional Stakeholders), comprised of a unique community of traditional and non-traditional mental health stakeholders who are bringing innovative solutions to address critical needs in mental health.

Through in-depth research, stakeholder interviews, and expert insights, Otsuka established a focus for NEXUS on three key areas of unmet need in mental health where Otsuka’s innovative approach could have the greatest impact: women, youth, and the justice system. While the needs of these groups are different, they share many similarities, such as the need for greater awareness, early intervention, a timely diagnosis, continuity of care, and support throughout life transitions. One of the goals of NEXUS is to work collaboratively to resolve the mental health challenges facing these groups at critical junctures, such as women becoming primary caregivers, youth moving schools, and individuals transitioning out of pre-incarceration community mental health services into the justice system.

To effect meaningful change, NEXUS is collaborating with 15 organizations, including mental health and caregiving groups, medical and government associations.

“Knowing it ‘takes a village’ to create meaningful change, we’re not just collaborating with traditional mental health stakeholders; we’re also engaging individuals and groups who are not typically associated with mental health but who bring relevant experience and insights – to shine a different light on issues and bring new ideas,” asserts Eli Perez, Otsuka’s Director of Congress & Stakeholder Management.

Real Chemistry and Otsuka’s collaboration on NEXUS is a continuation of joint initiatives the two have undertaken. Otsuka has created similar educational programs for other underserved groups, including the Global Council on Alzheimer’s Disease (GCAD), which focuses on patient-centered care. Real Chemistry supports this work by identifying audience segments including healthcare professionals and academics and leaders and influencers from advocacy groups and financial institutions who can share knowledge and ideas around the best ways to meet patient needs. Launched eight years ago, GCAD, is currently exploring the impact of untreated agitation with the goal of making meaningful progress in this overlooked aspect of Alzheimer’s, according to Mary Michael Otsuka’s VP of patient advocacy and stakeholder management.

“Otsuka places the audience’s voice at the center, listening and learning to address critical junctures in their experience,” explains Michelle Toscas, Managing Director, Otsuka Integration Lead at Real Chemistry. “Leveraging integrated digital and primary research helps us better understand the communities Otsuka serves and drives target activations.”

In April 2020, NEXUS launched a six-episode Building Mental Resiliency video series to support conversations and share resources to manage the uncertainness of the COVID-19 pandemic. The videos brought together experts to share information and ideas to build stronger mental health, particularly for those who are most vulnerable.  Episodes began with topics relevant to those most adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and expanded to cover issues ranging from COVID-19 support, caregiving challenges, the impact on Alzheimer’s patients, chronic conditions and systemic racism. Otsuka collaborated with the partner organizations and featured guests and used paid media to distribute the videos on a grassroots level. Episodes of the series also were circulated by PhRMA, BioNJ and MM&M.

Real Chemistry created a website and Facebook Page, which were particularly critical to disseminate NEXUS content during the COVID-19 pandemic. It shared additional research around the impact of COVID-19 on patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals at a virtual blogger summit alongside partner institutions and key opinion leaders. In addition, Real Chemistry developed monthly social content, which was supported by earned and paid promotion.

“You hear from the experts that the mental health burden of COVID-19 could surpass the physical part of it,” said Mary Michael, “We’ll try to support as many people as possible and help build that mental resiliency.”

During 2020, 47,486 users engaged, watched, or visited NEXUS content. Because a campaign targeted to the communities NEXUS identified has never been done before, the team is using this result as a benchmark to create a year-two program that expands the voices and perspectives of NEXUS champions through added multi-channel content and an expanded NEXUS website, with key metrics in place that enable us to nimbly adjust and evolve our efforts.

“Otsuka and NEXUS are meeting a critical set of unconventional gaps in our system that often go uncovered and underserved within the complex mental health experience,” says Toscas. “We’re looking forward to helping more patients moving forward.”

Will Hargreaves, Otsuka CRL, Real Chemistry


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“Hope and help are on the way.”

I said those words to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar as we huddled in the Upper West Wing Lobby one afternoon last November. We were preparing for a podium briefing at which Secretary Azar, as the architect of Operation Warp Speed, would give an update on the COVID-19 vaccine program. It was chilly outside, but I was buoyed by a glimmer of hope.

The weeks prior had brought a string of promising news about vaccines and therapeutics, only 10 months after COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic. We had just seen the news that Pfizer and BioNTech would file for Emergency Use Authorization for their vaccine the following day. Our best hope to eventually bring the pandemic to an end – with safe and highly effective vaccines – was in sight.

The Secretary used those words from the podium that day. President Biden spoke of “hope” and “help” earlier this year. And, like me, millions of people around the country have felt that hope as they and their loved ones have received their COVID-19 vaccine.

That hope and help wasn’t delivered by chance. It occurred thanks to the work and partnership of tens of thousands of heroes in healthcare, government and the private sector – not to mention the tens of thousands of clinical trial participants. While providing communications leadership for Operation Warp Speed – the honor of a lifetime – I had the chance to witness those partnerships accomplish something truly historic.

That teamwork showed us all how incredibly far – and fast – we can go when we show up and work together across silos toward a hugely challenging goal. Together, we took on the critical task of communicating science and data about the vaccines to build public confidence in them – even as they were developed and manufactured in record time. Together, we reinforced the importance of relentlessly pursuing equity – making representation in clinical trials a key measure of our success. Together, this teamwork and those partnerships have led to the administration of more than 311 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S.

The experience of shaping communications at Operation Warp Speed drove home for me the transformative power of breaking down barriers and silos, bringing different perspectives to the table, and seeking innovative solutions, all while letting science and data guide us. Operation Warp Speed showed that, when we work to create and unleash this alchemy in service of people and patients, we can, in fact, change the world.

That lesson is critical for anyone in healthcare or healthcare communications today, because global health innovation is happening faster than ever before. I experienced that rapid pace of transformation while leading strategic communications at HHS. It means that in an increasingly interconnected world where science, data, government, regulation, public opinion and patient views will heavily impact the success of every innovation and solution, clear and concise communications matters more than ever. So does listening to what patients say in response.

I’m thrilled to be here at Real Chemistry, where I’m impressed every day by our relentless collaboration to achieve better patient outcomes. The Real Chemistry leadership team has set us up to take a holistic and integrated approach as we work to solve the most important healthcare challenges of our time.

Hearing stories from my new colleagues about their work supporting COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics over the last year makes me feel right at home. We’re working tirelessly to deliver hope and help to a pandemic-weary world. I’m looking forward to collaborating, integrating and connecting the dots here in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere for our clients. What a mission we’ve been charged with – working together to make the world a healthier place for all.


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Understanding the state of vaccine confidence.

For the 11th year, Real Chemistry brought together leading health care innovators at SXSW to discuss the issues driving us forward. The virtual event was chock-full of robust conversations about important health care topics.

We were proud to present five official sessions, helping people go deep on what’s next in health care and how patient lives have improved as a direct result of breakthrough elements of health technology. We also hosted a two-day virtual Media Lounge that included panels and fireside chats.

Over the next few days, we’ll highlight some of these discussions, with links to where to watch the full sessions on YouTube. We look forward to seeing everyone at SXSW in person next year.

COVID-19 and Vaccine Confidence

The COVID-19 vaccines are our golden ticket back to normal, as Real Chemistry Founder and CEO Jim Weiss wrote earlier this year. Given that news coverage in recent months has been dominated by discussion of the vaccines, it should be no surprise that five of our SXSW panels covered that topic.

Real Chemistry advisor Jane Sarasohn-Kahn and renowned epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm held a wide-ranging conversation about the pandemic, vaccines and lessons to take forward.

Dr. Osterholm, noting other problems the pandemic has exposed or made worse, such as hunger and mental health challenges, said he hoped there would be new investments in public health. “Public health, when it is done well, preventing these kinds of situations, actually has a spillover into so many other parts of our life we don’t think about,” he said.

He noted that the vaccine rollout has had troubles because the federal government did not give states financial resources to distribute the shots. He said it is getting better, but pointed out, “The vaccine isn’t a vaccination until it goes into your arm.”

What a Shot Meant for One Nurse … and for Its Developer

One big star of our SXSW panels was Sandra Lindsay, a registered nurse from Long Island who in December became the first person in the United States to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. On a panel focused on lessons learned, she described what it meant to her: “It represented to me the beginning of the end of a very dark time in our history, that hope is here, preservation of life, abilities for others to get that same feeling.”

Lindsay was on a panel that included Judy Sewards, head of clinical trial experience at Pfizer, a Real Chemistry client, and Dr. Reed Tuckson,  co-founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID, another client. Sewards said Pfizer set high standards for the science and safety of its vaccine and learned the value of transparency during the process. The result? “People are much more aware of the scientific process. We as an industry have figured out where we need to meet people, do a better job of educating others about what it takes to develop a medicine or a vaccine,” she said.

Surveys About Vaccine Confidence Show Rising Support

What we know about vaccine confidence is not just guesswork. A wide variety of public opinion surveys have tracked how people feel about the vaccines and how willing they will be to take them once available.

On a panel with leading health researchers, Ipsos’ Chris Jackson and the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Liz Hamel pointed out the rise in public confidence in the vaccines in recent months. Jackson said polling shows double-digit increases in confidence across the world.

Of those with a “wait and see” approach, many are not really “hesitant,” but they need more information from trusted sources, Hamel said. “Listen to people’s concerns, take them seriously and empathize with them. They come from not only a place of fear but a place of newness,” she added.

Scott McDonald of the Advertising Research Foundation noted that some of the movement reinforces “what we already understand about how opinions change and how advertising really works.” He pointed out that people get their cues from a “norm” that is now influenced on social media by people they never meet.

While confidence in the vaccines has grown, confidence in governments to deal with the crisis has not. “It has slowly eroded over the past year,” Jackson said.

(For the latest in vaccine confidence news, subscribe to Real Chemistry’s free Vaccine Confidence Weekly newsletter here.)

Messaging About the Vaccines

Messaging about the vaccines and what platforms to use to communicate to those who have questions and concerns was a major focus of most of the Real Chemistry SXSW panels.

“A big breakthrough is telling people it’s okay to have questions,” Dr. Tuckson said. He and Lindsay agreed that trying to understand where people are instead of lecturing them is critical. “We need to listen to people, spend time listening and educating them, dispelling myths. Word of mouth remains very powerful,” she said.

Usually, it takes nine months to create an Ad Council campaign, but the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine education initiative took far less, said Catherine Chao, the Ad Council’s vice president for strategy and evaluation. PSAs were out in two weeks after the Ad Council finalized details with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Ad Council (Real Chemistry is an Ad Council partner) is not just developing heart-tugging commercials, but also community-based activities to “get deep into communities” and help people understand what the vaccines will bring, Chao said.

Effective messages come with an empathetic tone, not focused on playing into fears about what the coronavirus might do to someone who is not vaccinated. “Not to say fear isn’t motivating but when leaning on it too heavily, it is not authentic,” she said.

Asked to create his own 30-second script for a pro-vaccine commercial, Dr. Tuckson said it would say: “Dear American households, would you like to get your life back? Kids go back to school? Have a job? Do you want to have Christmas and Thanksgiving with your family? You can’t do it without getting vaccinated. Let’s get our lives back. Today’s the day.”

Frank Washkuch, executive editor of PRWeek, struck a similar tone. “There are many negative messages, but one that really works is, ‘This is how we get back to normal’,” he said.

The Employer Has a Vaccine Confidence Platform

Employers – who can access a toolkit at adcouncil.org – may not want to give ultimatums about vaccines, said Allison Weissbrot, editor-in-chief of Campaign US at Haymarket Media, but “employers have a huge platform and microphone to get employees vaccinated.” They can use other ways to persuade, including helping make appointments or giving people information about the vaccines, she said.

Jim Weiss said Real Chemistry would approach employee vaccination communication just as he would recommend to clients. “We’ll meet everybody where they are, listen to their concerns and have mutual respect,” he said.

Health Innovation at SXSW and Beyond

Boosting vaccine confidence is a path to help get us out of this pandemic, which has taken a terrible toll on so many. But one silver lining of this past year has been a rapid acceleration of innovation in health care. We will continue to share with you the insights gleaned at SXSW Online 2021 from our industry’s top thought leaders. Thank you for showing up and shaping the future with us.


Learn more about W2O via our About or Healthcare pages.

The W2O Center for Social Commerce at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications identifies mental wellness, lack of confidence, and imbalance as byproducts of a global pandemic.

More than one year since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it continues to impact every aspect of our lives. As students at Syracuse University, we and our classmates have quickly learned to adapt to virtual instruction, social distancing guidelines and safety protocols to keep the campus community safe.

The W2O Center for Social Commerce (CSC), a partnership between the Newhouse School and W2O – an analytics-oriented, insight-driven healthcare marketing and communications firm, part of Real Chemistry, a global health innovation company – sponsored a research study to understand students’ attitudes and experiences during COVID-19. The study captured approximately 200 student opinions encompassing various years of study, academic programs, organizations and living arrangements.

For college students and the entire university community, the effects of the pandemic extend beyond the classroom. It has impacted students’ confidence, made it challenging to participate in extracurricular activities and forced a “pause” on many social activities.

The good news is that students are resilient. Each day they are finding new approaches to stay engaged in their studies, maintain connections with peers and work with faculty to share ideas and get support.

We invite you to explore the full research report here, and read below for key takeaways:

1. Social distancing guidelines impact mental wellness

Students are experiencing screen time fatigue and a decrease in mental wellness. Some students also report they feel less eager to attend class to log on to club meetings because of the challenging circumstances.

2. Uncertainty exists around adherence to safety protocols

While many students are doing their part to slow the spread, they felt it was unlikely they could stay completely safe from others who did not take the same precautions.

3. Utilizing in-person resources feels risky for campus community

While many resources moved to virtual settings, students struggle with the lack of in-person resources, resulting in a majority feeling disconnected.

4. Finding professional opportunities in an unstable job market adds pressure

Many discussed how COVID-19 has impacted their post-graduate plans and caused a pivot in their expectations of entering the workforce, especially upperclassmen anticipating graduation.

5. “Silver linings” exist despite challenging circumstances

Many students have found ways to make the best of a disappointing situation. For example, some students shared that the need to maintain small social “bubbles” brought them closer to friends and roommates. Others shared that more downtime and less pressure to participate in social events allowed them to gain new perspective on their priorities and enabled them to grow on a personal level.

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Blog post by The W2O Center for Social Commerce Student Ambassadors: Frankie Sailer, Regan Talley and Karley Warden

We are grateful to Syracuse University, the Newhouse School and the W2O Center for Social Commerce for enabling us to explore this important topic. We believe it will be relevant for other universities looking to ensure progress in addressing current challenges and be better prepared in the future.


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