Paul Tanner, 90TEN Healthcare: Stakeholder comms evolve

Changing the negative perception of big pharma is a long-term job, but social media can help.

The pharmaceutical industry has always endured a love-hate relationship with the media. Whether we flick through the pages of the pharmaceutical trade press, read the broadsheet business pages, or tune into primetime TV, every day headlines hail the promise of wonder drugs, while condemning the cost of medicines or CEO salaries.

In such an emotive area, and with the British public taking an ever closer interest in their healthcare and the way it is delivered, big pharma will remain in the media spotlight.

It isn't a surprise that clinical data, new drug developments and the transparency of clinical trials attract as much attention from the Daily Mail as they do from the Food & Drug Administration. We all know that bad news sells papers. We only have to cast our minds back several years to Barbara Clark's public battle to receive Roche's Herceptin, a battle that was in no small part fuelled by the national media. Like it or not, the consumer press is an important and influential channel, and it can significantly affect corporate reputation.

GSK has fallen foul of the media in recent years, but its comms teams should be commended for expertly leveraging the media agenda to achieve positive front page coverage.

The challenge for pharma comms teams today is to reach an expanding audience through traditional and emerging comms channels, and to work with the news agenda to generate fair and balanced coverage. Corporate reputation is easily damaged, so how can pharma companies sustain and manage a positive news flow?

With the emergence of social media, comms channels are becoming more diverse and so are the stakeholders we can reach. Social media make all companies answerable to stakeholders, and provide the platform for a public dialogue. GSK now has more than 6,000 followers on Twitter, and Pfizer has closer to 11,500. These stakeholders have chosen to receive company information and can defend or disparage it with no need to support their statements.

Social media make us feel more connected to companies, yet our perception of the organisations we interact with every day can shift as we sit on the sofa. So how can companies harness a potential audience with more than just words? Well, CSR is one way to help generate positive 'news'.

The public's thirst for health knowledge is not a new phenomenon, but it is becoming a public dialogue. The way pharma interacts with stakeholders, especially potential end users, must evolve. As Philip Thomson of GSK testifies, a company's CSR policy must be aligned with its overall strategy and acknowledge how financial backing or other involvement can genuinely benefit wider society.

In a global recession, it can be tempting to reduce non-critical expenditure. But with the public sector cutbacks comes an opportunity for pharma to take a lead role in innovative, community-centred initiatives. Social marketing programmes use behavioural change models to help the public make informed health choices. This can help stimulate practical changes to the health of people who need it most, while building an audience of genuine advocates.

As an industry we become frustrated by negative public perceptions - but we must get our hands dirty if we are to shift long-term opinion. In the age of the citizen journalist and a 24-hour news agenda, we need a track record of genuine contribution to communicate to a wider audience that, as Thomson says, genuinely benefits 'specialist audiences'.

Views in brief

- How will proposed changes to the NHS affect pharma marketing?

Constraints on funding will provide opportunities to develop relationships with local GP consortia and councils to deliver educational and social marketing programmes that reach healthcare professionals and patients.

- How would you fill a five-minute meeting with Andrew Lansley?

If patient choice is a key priority, why aren't we empowering patients to choose the medication they receive? True patient choice will lead to better treatment outcomes.

Paul Tanner is co-founder/director of 90TEN Healthcare

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