24 Mar 2021

Can PR be done so badly, a campaign be so utterly dreadful, that it becomes actually lethal? Most of us would scoff at the notion, “it’s PR, not ER”, right? That’s what we were always told when we sent that erroneous email or mistakenly left a ‘DRAFT’ watermark on a photocall to the nation’s picture desks (I actually did this once, the shame). But surely PR can never be so important, that to do it badly might result in the loss of life? Sadly, we are learning in real time that this is not true. Good PR can save lives, and conversely, bad PR can cost them.

The European Union’s bizarre, chaotic and contradictory campaign against the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will go down in history as one of the worst examples of public health campaigning in modern times. Their confused and apparently hostile approach to a jab proven to be safe and effective will result in the avoidable deaths of many Europeans. Just think about that for a moment – people will die as a result of their actions towards something designed to save lives. It is both infuriating and horrifying in equal measure.

The saga began when key European nations, including France, questioned whether the vaccine would be effective in people older than 65. There was no reason to do this. The data was there, and even if it wasn’t, what kind of strategy is publicly undermining a jab in the very demographic in which it is needed most? The respected European Medicines Agency (EMA) set the record straight and recommended the jab for use in anyone over the age of 18. But alas, the damage had already been done.

New data from YouGov shows plummeting levels of confidence in the life-saving vaccine right across the continent

For weeks, vaccination centres across the Bloc were half-empty, as cautious Europeans avoided what some have now nick-named the “Aldi” jab (because it’s seen as cheap). Seeing their vaccination rates hit the floor, the EU made aggressive overtones about blocking the export of vaccines to the rest of the world, including the UK. Then, last week, a number of EU countries including France and Germany did the worst thing they could have possibly done – they questioned the safety of a proven vaccine in the middle of a pandemic. Suggesting that the jab might be linked to blood clots (it isn’t), they suspended its use. For days, Europeans read headlines that the AZ jab might be dangerous. On Thursday, the EMA declared that it was safe to use and that there was no causal link whatsoever to blood clots. But it doesn’t matter, the damage has already been done. New data from YouGov, published today, shows plummeting levels of confidence in the life-saving vaccine right across the continent. 61% of people in France believe the jab is “unsafe”, up 18% in just a couple of weeks. 55% in Germany think it is unsafe, as do 43% in Italy and 52% in Spain.

What this means in the simplest terms is that hundreds of thousands, potentially millions, of Europeans will avoid getting a vaccine that is proven to dramatically reduce their chances of catching coronavirus and ending up in hospital. A US study has shown it reduced hospitalisations by 100% (yes, 100%) in a sample of 32,000 people. How many blood clots were reported in such a large group? Zero.

When the vaccine roll-out first started ramping up, this magazine covered what governments would need to get right in order to make the communications campaign a success. I said at the time that the public need clarity, certainty and consistency. The EU has failed on all three fronts, and the consequences will be deadly.