In the age of Covid19, are Pharma companies diplomatic actors? A Twitter Analysis

Are tech giants diplomatic actors? This question has occupied scholars and commentators for several years. Some have argued that social media companies have obtained a form of digital statehood. Facebook, for instance, displays many trappings of a state including a citizenry, a currency and a diplomatic branch charged with managing relations with offline states. Others have asserted that tech giants shape the information environment of global publics and they thus influence how leaders and states can interact with domestic and foreign populations. In the fight against disinformation and propaganda, tech giants become an indispensable partner that states rely on. Even the war on terror and radicalization requires the aid of these giants while decisions on where to open R&D facilities can impact nations’ financial prosperity. The greatest indication that tech giants are diplomatic actors is that several states have appointed Ambassadors to Silicon Valley tasked with establishing friendly relations with tech giants. Though these Ambassadors do not present their credentials to the CEOs of Facebook, Amazon and Google, they are charged with gaining access to these CEOs and influencing their companies’ policies.

An intriguing question is whether Pharma companies have become diplomatic actors in the age of Covdi19? Indeed, world leaders, Ambassadors and diplomats have all sought to establish close ties with Pharma companies thus ensuring access to Covid19 vaccines. These competitions have grown in importance given the societal and financial ramifications of the pandemic as well as the limited amount of vaccines that can be developed at any given time. Moreover, Pharma companies may decide to enter into strategic partnerships with states, thus helping them emerge from the Covid19 crisis. Israel is a notable example as it secured some of the first batches of the vaccines in exchange for sharing medical information with the Pfizer company. Pharma companies have also entered into agreements with states to help accelerate local development and administration of the vaccines. So much like tech companies, Pharma companies’ decisions have a dramatic impact on the financial prosperity of states. Even more importantly, Pharma CEOs have become a fixture in global summits be it UN General Assembly meetings, G7 summits or EU meetings.

To examine whether Pharma companies are now diplomatic actors, I decided to analyze the Twitter account of Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla, a man so popular that he now takes part in national independence day celebrations. My goal was to assess whether Bourla uses Twitter like world leaders. The past decade has seen the mass migration of world leaders to Twitter. Leaders leverage Twitter towards three ends. First, exemplifying the values their nations adhere to and demonstrating how these values inform national policies. President Obama, for one, used Twitter to frame the 2015 Iran Deal as part of Americas commitment to engage in dialogue with the Muslim world. Second, world leaders use Twitter to comment on local and global events as they unfold. This has been dubbed as a form of “real-time” diplomacy. Finally, leaders use Twitter to highlight national achievements, be it in joining important alliances, securing lucrative trade deals or winning Olympic medals.

An analysis of Bourla’s Twitter account is informative as it shows that this account is akin to that managed by other world leaders. Moreover, the account demonstrates that Pfizer is indeed an important diplomatic actor.

A substantial number of tweets published by the CEO highlighted Pfizer’s core values: ensuring a fair and global distribution of Covvid19 vaccines, aiding poor countries by providing vaccines at no profit and a commitment to science, not opinions. Indeed, the CEO often used the hashtag “ScienceWillWin” or the term “moving at the speed of science”. Such tweets may be seen below.

Another value celebrated by Pfizer and its CEO is a commitment to openness and transparency. Bourla commonly publishes internal reports, assessments as well as information provided to regulatory bodies such as the American FDA. Here again Bourla links the value of openness, with the company’s commitment to scientific excellence. These tweets may have been used to boost confidence in Pfizer’s vaccines. Yet they may have also been used to distinguish Pfizer vaccines from other ones such as those developed by Russia and China. While these nations engage in disinformation and produce vaccines under a cloak of secrecy, Pfizer’s vaccines are rooted in concert science while their production and evaluation is conducted in plain sight.

Bourla also used Twitter to comment on positive and negative events in near-real time. In one instance, he assured followers that Pfizer would help India overcome a rapidly escalating crisis. In another, he commented on the company’s commitment to expand vaccine production and supply booster shots to contend with the Delta variant.

Lastly, Bourla used Twitter to share Pfizer’s achievements. Such tweets often dealt with bi-lateral ties between Pfizer and other states. For instance, tweets celebrated the delivery of vaccines to certain countries or agreements to produce vaccines locally, as may be seen below.  Much like a world leader or diplomat, the CEO’s Twitter account often depicted Pfizer’s flag, one of the important trappings of diplomatic actors.

Notably, while the aforementioned tweets demonstrate that Bourla uses his account in a manner similar to world leaders, there were other tweets that best captured Pfizer’s global diplomatic standing. First, throughout 2020 and 2021 Bourla became a regular guest at global summits be it G7 meetings or UN deliberations. In these events, Bourla tied the Covid crisis to other global challenges that require problem solving on a planetary scale.  Thus, Like President Biden, or Prime Minister Johnson, Bourla did not limit his comments to the pandemic, instead reflecting on the state of the world and Pfizer’s role in that world. When meeting with the German Chancellor Merkel, Bourla was featured in the traditional image that accompanies global summits while he also expressed his hopes that Germany would overcome devastating floods. Here again, Bourla’s comments were in no way limited to the pandemic.

Second, Bourla often embarked on State Visits. In one instance, he was the guest of the King of Jordan. The accompanying image, of the two individuals engrossed in conversation, is identical to the kind of image published on digital diplomacy channels after a meeting between two world leaders. On other occasions, Bourla hosted world leaders who came to examine Pfizer’s facility, including the US President and EU leaders. Here again, the images shared by Bourla resonate with State Visits as world leaders address the press after a private meeting or review an honor guard.   

Finally, many tweets by the CEO emphasized the company’s close ties with the US and joint efforts by the two parties to distribute vaccines equally and globally. These tweets indicate that the two superpowers have joined force to help manage a global crisis. Much like two states, the US and Pfizer have created a strategic alliance in which their interests align as both wish to vaccinate as many people as possible as only a global vaccination program will end the pandemic, and increase the coffers of Pfizer’s shareholders.

Diplomacy scholars have already labeled multinational corporations as diplomatic actors. Much like states they wield power, can offer incentives, can change national fortunes and must manage relations of enmity and friendship with nation states. Yet during the Covid crisis, Pharma companies have grown in importance, prestige and influence. Given the global competition over a limited supply of vaccinations, companies such as Pfizer are transformed into courts of powerful kings and emperors. Emissaries the world over flock to these courts to charm CEOs, foster close ties and ensure a steady supply of a priceless commodity. On Twitter, Pfizer’s CEO obtains the attributes of world leaders as he becomes a fixture in the landscape of international relations.

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