Phil Thomson, GlaxoSmithKline: A new comms generation

In a period of upheaval, PR professionals are driving change at pharmaceutical companies.

Phil Thomson, GlaxoSmithKline: A new comms generation

The pharmaceutical industry is in the midst of enormous structural change. First, an unprecedented number of branded medicines are losing their patent protection. This 'patent cliff' is thought to be worth $200bn over the period 2008-12. To put it another way, the industry is losing revenue equivalent to the combined market value of Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Burberry, Diageo, Rolls-Royce and the Lloyds Banking Group.

These losses coincide with a decline in research and development productivity. In other words, the drugs being discovered in the labs are not replacing the value of those medicines losing patent protection. Also, purchasing power consolidation - through private sector and governmental reforms - is squeezing prices.

We have responded by fundamentally changing GSK, shifting investment and resources to emerging markets, consumer healthcare, vaccines and biopharmaceuticals. Our product pipeline is promising, with potential new medicines and vaccines for areas of significant unmet need such as diabetes, heart disease, cancers and several rare diseases.

Our strategy is not unique; it will be implementation that makes us successful. The role of communications is not only to articulate change, but to drive it faster and deeper.

So we are reshaping GSK's communications function, adding new skills and embracing a more open culture. We are moving from a decentralised organisation to an integrated group. 'Connectivity' is one of our function's key priorities and I believe it is vital if we are to share knowledge and operate effectively.

Companies and their communications are undoubtedly under the spotlight. Messages are scrutinised. Shortcomings are amplified. Attention is limited. This applies as much inside companies as outside.

For GSK, operating in more than 100 countries, this means being able to share resources seamlessly and speak consistently and powerfully to everyone interested in our company.

It also means ensuring our communication is holistic. This is central because of the role trust plays in our industry. The enhanced capacity of GSK to win and retain trust will be a source of competitive advantage and a driver of shareholder value.

As a result, bringing our ethical performance to life is as important as explaining our financial performance. So the need to build and renew trust is hardwired into our thinking and planning, whether it is related to the acquisition of a company or our 'open lab' innovation to encourage collaboration on new treatments for malaria.

This is no easy task and it requires communicators with versatility, judgement and empathy. It means investing in our people is critical. In common with many communications organisations, I suspect, we've not systematically developed our people.

That is changing. We're investing in a global communications competency framework so we can respond to skill deficits individually and invest in function-wide training. We are also looking to move our people around different communication disciplines and audiences. An example is moving talent from brand and product communications to investor relations.

These changes are being made to help create a sustainable business that will bring more new medicines, vaccines and products to patients and consumers around the world. Communicators reading this know that our expertise is at the heart of realising this change. We are embracing it, challenging it and championing it.

Views in brief

Which historical figure would have been a great reputation manager?

Emmeline Pankhurst - she fundamentally reshaped the perception of women in society. She campaigned with passion, understood the value of news and was adept at getting her message across in multiple ways.

Which organisation has turned around its reputation in the past year?

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have responded well to the potential negative impact of The Social Network.

Phil Thomson is senior vice-president of global communications at GlaxoSmithKline

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