Jo Spadaccino, Pegasus PR: Listen to the pharma giant

How pharmaceutical companies big and small can learn from GSK's business strategy.

Jo Spadaccino, Pegasus PR: Listen to the pharma giant

All industries have their watershed moments, and the world of pharmaceuticals is in the midst of its own. Shifting sands in the broader environment - as well as internal factors - have forced the industry to conduct a mass sanity check on its future. So what can the discipline of comms do to help this transformation?

Phil Thomson's vision for GSK is an ambitious and uplifting perspective, and one that no self-respecting pharma communicator would disagree with. But can the strategy of a giant like GSK be suitable for other pharma players, some of which will certainly not have an army of 300 communicators at their disposal?

I believe it is - in terms of sentiment and direction, if not in scale. The guiding principles - honesty, transparency, and a focus on improving health outcomes rather than shifting product - must be the common denominators if we are to address the perception that the industry is just out to benefit from ill health. But companies must find their own path in the 'pharma movement'. It is up to each to define how it can best contribute to health improvement, for that will drive future competitive advantage.

The pharma communicator has a pivotal role to play in the revolution, starting with encouraging a more open and collaborative approach to engagement. Whether in-house or consultancy-side, these individuals and teams are ideally placed to provide insight into what stakeholders are thinking, feeling and doing - the first rule of good communication is to listen well. We have seen a significant growth in this kind of brief at Pegasus, particularly now that social media channels are such a important part of the comms landscape. And as the range of stakeholders diversifies to encompass the patient at one end and the payer at the other, the ability to balance the needs of these influential, often opposing, groups will be crucial.

Many of the smaller companies in the field have avoided the scrutiny and criticism levelled at the pharma big guns. But that doesn't mean they don't need to evolve the way they do business. Let's face it, this shift in the way businesses are interacting with their customers and stakeholders is hardly exclusive to this industry - pharma has been slower to respond because it is heavily regulated.

Companies must present a 'whole-company' face to all their publics so, as Thomson says, 'pharma will be seen as a driver for positive social change'.

A test of the mettle would be to track how comms budgets are being redistributed to support this, but the need for solid brand comms will remain. As the sales model for prescription products shifts to focus on value, communicators will have to advise on the right time, the right message, and the right channel for each stakeholder. This will no longer be the sole domain of the marketer - effective comms efforts will rely on a collaboration between research and development, medics, partnership leads and more.

The good news is that success doesn't necessarily mean spending more to make the same amount. It's about being smarter with the available resources - whether that means better use of new technologies, prioritisation and that buzz word of the moment, best value. Return on investment is rightly going to remain a priority for companies large and small, and those communicators who can demonstrate that their strategies yield real business results - both in the short term but also in the medium and long term through meaningful engagement with stakeholders - will be most highly prized.

Views in brief

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

The campaign by NHS Leicester, featuring a dramatised viral of a young girl giving birth on a school playing field. Alongside the textbook ingredients for a strong campaign, it was the courage to break the mould that led to a 25 per cent drop in teen conception rates. Fantastic.

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

I think he is going to need all the strength he has got, so I would give him a bit of a break. We would have a cup of tea and then I would take him for an invigorating walk on Brighton seafront.

Jo Spadaccino is head of pharma and life sciences at Pegasus PR

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