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A masterclass in corporate communications: Pascal Soriot, CEO of AstraZeneca:

January 2021 admin

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‘Now everybody is saying “you’re too slow”, while before we were “too fast”’

If you only read one thing this week, make it AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot’s interview in La Repubblica. Not only is it illuminating if you’re interested in the challenges of developing, approving, manufacturing, and deploying a vaccine for COVID-19 in record time, it’s also a brilliant example of first-class corporate communications.

In an age in which so many authority figures in the public eye are evasive, ambiguous, or light on detail in their commentary, Soriot’s interview is notable for being none of those things. His replies to the paper’s questions demonstrate real command of the subject matter, a clear sense of how being transparent helps rather than hinders a business’ reputation, and comfort and confidence in tackling the most difficult questions head-on.

Soriot does a brilliant job of explaining the accelerated manufacturing process in detail, including the issues with yield variation in different production sites that are impacting current supply. He also addresses the contractual argument with the EU openly and honestly, focusing on the facts instead of ‘passing judgement’. It never feels like Soriot is going through the motions in delivering pre-approved corporate lines, even though there will undoubtedly have been thorough preparatory work done by the CEO with AstraZeneca’s comms team. It’s to their credit that they trust the abilities of a leader who’s on top of his game (and brief) to deliver an interview like this.

There are important points to bear in mind, of course. The interview was an exclusive: the terms of the discussion would have been brokered between AstraZeneca and the journalists who reported the story. Soriot likely had a very clear idea of which questions would be asked so that he could prepare thoroughly for them. The choice of outlet is important too: La Repubblica leans slightly left of centre, and so was probably carefully selected to provide Soriot with a platform to be challenging but fair in its reporting while also avoiding the anti-pharma or pro-freedom / anti-lockdown agendas of titles far to the left or right of centre. Finally, the piece’s format – a pure question and answer interview – allowed Soriot to provide detailed answers to explain a complex subject and situation.

At this point we shouldn’t overlook the fight that has subsequently kicked off between AstraZeneca and the EU since publication. There’s been significant and very public back and forth between the two on vaccine supply following Soriot’s comments which, at the time of writing, is still ongoing. Perhaps it’s coincidental, but one can’t help feeling the interview in La Repubblica was timed to get ahead of the EU with a thoughtful and balanced explanation of the current supply challenges and contract terms. Deliberate or not, the interview forced the EU to react.

The interview is a long read, broad in scope and rich in substantiated detail. Few people will take the trouble to read the whole piece, but that’s not the point: La Repubblica’s piece has already been referenced in a huge number of other news outlets’ reports internationally, so excerpts of Soriot’s comments are already reaching a much wider audience and shaping the media agenda on vaccine supply across Europe.

The piece is also a timely reminder that the number of viable outlets through which comms teams can deliver in-depth stories like this one is shrinking. Today’s fast-moving 24-hour news cycle prizes headlines and soundbites over comprehensiveness, where controversy trumps nuance. But if you have a compelling story to tell, and a CEO who is capable of delivering it well, finding and converting opportunities like the one AstraZeneca created with La Repubblica can pay dividends.

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