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Written by Mal Cole, Media and Communications Director

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil – so goes one of history’s most quoted political rallying cries – is for good men to do nothing.

This quote is most frequently attributed to the Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, athough most independent fact checker sources agree that there is no evidence that Burke ever said such a thing.

That’s both fitting and ironic for a blog post about how easily misinformation can spread and how hard it can be to counter with the truth.

Take the case of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. In the UK, it has been credited with contributing to “Freedom Day”, where enough Brits were vaccinated for the government to throw open society and the economy.  Its co-creator, Professor Sarah Gilbert, is lauded as a national hero. Immortalised as the latest Barbie Doll, even. 

In Australia, however, AstraZeneca’s reputation has been on the slide for months, and it has taken the popularity of the Morrison Federal Government down with it.  And for what reason?

There has been plenty of credible published information to show it is as effective as the sought-after Pfizer alternative, and no more likely to cause serious blood clotting or other side effects.

AstraZeneca has suffered a reputational crisis because it has not had a public champion. 

When a corporate reputation gets a bit tarnished, the first duty of the corporation is to defend vigorously its product, and right the wrongs. This involves media appearances, advertising, social and digital campaigns – the full monty of the communications world.

The problem for AstraZeneca is that it is restrained by Federal laws that prevent drug manufacturers from lobbying the public on behalf of their own listed drugs. They are almost completely gagged.

In normal times, this is a sensible mechanism designed to protect the integrity of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and ensure it is medical, rather than media, opinions that determine which drugs are demanded by consumers.

In these “unprecedented times” that we hear so much about, however, this policy has created a vacuum of information to promote the AstraZeneca vaccine and drive public confidence.

While most Premiers and Chief Health Officers – with one notable outlier state – have supported AstraZeneca, even they have been reluctant to offer an endorsement stronger than “talk to your GP about it”.

At the Federal political level, the Government has tried to help but arguably increased the fear by indemnifying doctors for deaths or injuries caused by giving the AZ vaccine. The instant reaction of thinking people is to question what must be wrong with a product for it to need that kind of backing.

The Opposition, meantime, has simply revelled in the slow vaccination rate caused by hesitancy for AstraZeneca. They certainly have not done anything to encourage its use.

So we find ourselves in a situation where the manufacturers legally cannot advocate for their product, where the politicians will not, and where the medical community will do so only with an abundance of caution that sounds to the cynical Australian public like a thinly veiled warning. Which perhaps it is.

The net result has not only been increased barriers to young people accessing AstraZeneca, but over-60s also reluctant to take that vaccine. Although this is by no means the only reason that Australia’s vaccine rollout has been slower compared to other nations, it certainly has not helped.

The entire exercise demonstrates the first principle of crisis communications – fill the void.  In the absence of strong and consistent truth-telling, fear and misinformation will win every time.

In this case the problems stem not so much from good people doing nothing as from good people saying nothing.

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