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Moderna vs. misinformation: How the biotech battles online lies about its COVID vaccine

June 2, 2022, 10:08 AM UTC
A pharmacist administers a booster shot of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.
Emily Elconin—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The bullhorns and placards started appearing at Moderna’s Cambridge, Mass., headquarters shortly after Kate Cronin’s arrival. Not that any of it surprised the biotech’s chief brand officer. She had worked with pharmaceutical clients at Ogilvy Health for years before joining the company, so she expected anti-vax headwinds. 

“I came to Moderna with my eyes wide open. I believed in what the company was doing, that it was the right thing and a good thing,” she says, during an interview from South Carolina, of the persistent battle she has waged against misinformation and disinformation during the development and rollout of Moderna’s mRNA vaccine. “But I knew the vaccine category could be a political football. I also knew that anti-vaxxers have been out there a long time and misinformation is one of their tools.”

Cronin has been countering several falsities in the marketplace ever since: that the mRNA vaccine was rushed into development without proper oversight; that it contains a tracking microchip; that the vaccine is killing people, altering DNA, and causing AIDS. Her best advice in the face of misinformation overload: Start by identifying the reputable parties with whom it’s possible to have educated dialogues about valid concerns. (For more on the growing threat of misinformation to big companies, see this story.)

For example, the first group of picketers that arrived after Cronin’s arrival was made up of activists claiming that Moderna was withholding product from the developing world at the behest of its U.S. government investors. So Cronin created a content strategy explaining that Moderna is required to pay back the government money it received—and that the company also provided discounted product to the U.S.

Cronin also went deep on Moderna’s history and business model, explaining that the company didn’t have any commercial capacity when COVID hit, and so started taking orders from richer nations as a means of getting production started. “Someone had to help us get manufacturing up and running—and that was high-income countries,” she says. “You have to tell that narrative over and over. And now, the low-income countries are swimming in vaccine.” 

Moderna created a flood of press releases, blogs, FAQs, Q&As, and podcasts to communicate with various stakeholders. The intention wasn’t so much to pick apart narratives as it was to wrest control of the company’s story line and provide resources for partners and customers. “We created content that was specific for consumers and content specific for health care providers, to ensure that they had the information at their fingertips,” she says. “We’re constantly educating because the news flow changes on a regular basis, the science evolves, and we’re learning from the science. So I think that my key learning is to be super transparent.” 

Syringes filled with doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site in Tokyo in January 2022.
Eugene Hoshiko—AP Photo/Bloomberg/Getty Images

To address vaccine resistance, Cronin launched two fairly unusual initiatives, at least by the standards of a biotech company. Moderna partnered with the NBA and NHL to sponsor a “shot of the game,” in which the call to action drove fans to vaccine.com to see where to get a booster. The company also developed the “Make It Yours” website and campaign to address the emotions people feel about putting a novel vaccine in their body. The hope was that bringing vaccine discussion into the sunlight, and making it personal, would reduce some of the uncertainty and fear.

“We really focused on the behavioral science: ‘Make It Yours’ really drove consumers,” says Cronin. “It turned out to be a good way of reaching our audiences because it wasn’t aggressive. Everyone’s an individual. We just tried to take that into account.”

It’s novel terrain for a pharmaceutical company to have a direct relationship with consumers. But Moderna’s vaccine has made a lot of loyal fans. “If you got Moderna, and you didn’t get sick, you had a kind of a loyalty built in,” she says. “That gave us an opportunity to build a relationship not just with the health care providers but the consumers, too.” 

A recognizable brand and consumer relationships should prove to be important assets as the company looks to harness its mRNA platform to develop vaccines against, you name it, HIV, cancer, influenza, and rabies. So, too, will the lessons Cronin has learned about transparency and EQ (the emotional quotient). “That relationship with the consumer is tenuous, and we have to continue to be upfront, transparent, sharing information when we have it, and continuing to build that trust,” she says. “It takes time, energy, and effort, but I think it’s an opportunity for Moderna to generate energy and excitement for where mRNA can go. That’s the next chapter.”

Jeffrey M. O’Brien (@jeffreyobrien) is cofounder of the Bay Area storytelling studio StoryTK.

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