John Gisborne, Hill & Knowlton: Bulldoze the ivory towers

Communicators must work harder to help the public understand how pharma operates.

Pharma companies need to be everyone's allies these days. However, pleasing regulators, patients, payers and shareholders at the same time requires a sophisticated comms approach.

I'm not suggesting for a moment that transparency isn't always the right way to go. It is. But since the voice of pharma is almost always raised by the comms team, I can tell you that not all audiences react to things in the same way, and as communicators we collectively bear much of the responsibility - and most of the headaches.

One of the biggest hurdles that the global pharma industry must overcome if it is to build trust is the speed with which it can respond to requests for information from the public. When access to information is immediate, people do not understand why companies do not respond, why specific content is not published online and why it can appear that no immediate action is being taken when it is discovered that a drug has a side effect. This takes on an entirely new meaning when a medicine is inaccessible due to cost when it is perceived as the only option to save a loved one on borrowed time.

Pharma is not alone among the regulated industries in that it is not starting from a good place. However, people will cut you some slack if they trust you and it's surprising how quickly oil spills or redundancies are forgiven when the company concerned sponsors a favourite sports team.

How is pharma different? It simply doesn't get the benefit of the doubt because it has a unique ability to prevent suffering or even death through access to its product range.

Memories are also long when mistakes are made.

Consider thalidomide, the false hysteria surrounding MMR jabs, bird flu vaccines or product withdrawal in general. The fact remains that if a company was involved, it may not be trusted.

Many believe pharma is wealthy and therefore able to put things right, but unwilling to do so for fear of jeopardising returns.

We need to start here.

Bulldozing the ivory towers sends an important signal that things are changing, but communicators can still work harder to find ways to give the public the information it needs to understand the environment in which the industry operates, and why things happen as they do. This requires a seat at the table of course, but most industry chiefs recognise that silence isn't an option in the digital age and value the expertise of comms teams in this regard.

We can also provide far better platforms for patients to share information with each other about specific diseases and openly access information about conditions and treatments, even if it could indirectly help the competition. Indeed, we may need to partner with the competition to make it possible. This means a fundamental change in the way marketing comms programmes are designed - simply migrating an old programme to a digital platform will not work.

If we achieve this, the public will respect the gesture and trust will increase.

Finally, we need to accept that stakeholders will be upset if studies are designed in a way that yields results not in line with outcomes desired by regulators. When this happens we must communicate transparently.

Essentially, we must respect patients as partners in the same way as shareholders, not just talk about doing so. Don't be afraid to deliver bad news, but do it quickly and explain why. Trust will follow.

Views in brief

- What is the most innovative public health campaign in the past year?

The Merck-supported 'Time to Talk Cardio' campaign - an initiative to get the public talking about cardiovascular risk - has reached a broad audience using a range of channels. The industry needs to find ways to replicate this kind of work more widely.

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

Marketers of premium products will have to dig deeper than ever before, presenting a different kind of GP-focused value message to even stand a chance unless they're already in.

John Gisborne is UK head of healthcare at Hill & Knowlton

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