Pharma inquiry lacks understanding of PR

This week sees senior figures from firms such as GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, as well as bodies including the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), attend the seventh session of the Health Select Committee inquiry into the ‘influence of the pharmaceutical industry’. I don’t envy them.

Prior to Christmas, I observed the penultimate session at which members of the press and advertising and PR industries came under scrutiny. The issue being addressed was whether pharma exerted undue influence through marketing channels and media.

Important questions were asked regarding the ‘uncritical’ publishing of papers in certain medical journals and the printing of apparently independent articles that turn out to be ghost-written by pharma marketing departments. Legitimate points were made about the inaccessibility of key policy makers at the Department of Health, the danger of unnecessary prescription and, of course, transparency. But, yet again, too much time seemed to be taken up explaining the basics of PR.

The obvious lack of understanding of advertising and PR led to some moments of borderline farce, such as the questioning of Paling Walters MD Mike Paling on how he built up his relationships with journalists. After a detailed explanation of media buying failed to clear up the issue, he retorted: ‘I cannot honestly say that I have had contact with a journalist apart from a friend who was a sports writer on the Mirror.’

Another committee member repeatedly asked Paling and Ogilvy Healthworld European president Margot James whether they would say they ‘stimulated demand’. As James rather elegantly replied, ‘stimulating demand’ is a rather crude way of describing the process, but the accusatory tone pointed to a lack of understanding of why a client bothers paying for marketing in the first place. In fact, one member of the committee appeared quite put out when it was confirmed that clients paid for disease awareness ad campaigns.

According to the committee, marketing and promotional activity has increased inversely to innovative drug production – since 1995, research staff numbers have fallen by two per cent, while marketing staff numbers have increased by 59 per cent.

In such a crowded market the shift to promotion is perhaps inevitable. But to date, the crucial question of whether this level of marketing is beneficial to promoting the health of the population remains largely unanswered.

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