You've probably all heard of it - the 1982 Tylenol crisis (UK brand name: Panadol), where McNeil Consumer Products, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson (J&J), was confronted with a crisis when seven people in Chicago died mysteriously.
Authorities determined that each person had ingested an Extra-Strength Tylenol capsule laced with cyanide. The news travelled quickly and was the cause of a massive panic across North America.
At the time and many years later, the way it was handled by the J&J Communications team was viewed as the epitome of crisis management.
Now, 30 years later, in the world of pharmaceutical PR we rarely talk about crisis management. Instead, we talk about issues management.
We like to believe that with proper planning, an issue will never become a crisis. We all know this isn't the case as sometimes things just happen out of the blue, as they did for J&J in 1982, or in multiple examples of adverse safety reports on in-market pharmaceuticals, or even the London riots.
However, many issues are foreseeable, and with proper planning, are manageable. But it takes commitment and investment from both the internal team and the agency.
Investment in issues management by the pharmaceutical industry ebbs and flows. Ten to 15 years ago, we were doing crisis simulations yearly for many of our clients. This was followed by a period of limited investment.
Now, due to tight regulations and increasing scrutiny on the pharmaceutical industry by regulatory authorities, investment in issues management planning is on the rise.
Not only has investment changed in issues management but the speed and number of channels we need to engage with is off the scale compared with ten years ago.
The number of digitally savvy people who use media to express opinions and pass comment has led to issues breaking in real time.
With traditional media, you had an element of 'lag' time between an article being published and the resulting reaction, but today if you're not armed with a digital reaction team as one of your issues management pillars, you're missing an essential element.
Social media have certainly levelled the playing field in healthcare. While digital has empowered the consumer to be a journalist, the tech-savvy healthcare professionals who have shied away from the limelight now have a platform to broadcast their opinions.
Large, hidden groups of vocal, key decision makers can create a problem for a pharmaceutical brand that has to consider how to engage with these audiences day to day, what their influencers are, and the appropriate action in a crisis.
Planning is still key, but it is more than messaging and Q&A documents aimed at potential media enquiries. Pharmaceutical companies have extremely broad audiences all needing specific but unified messages.
To communicate to all audiences, our clients are building internal task forces to plan for issues and then manage them if and when they occur.
On our side, we provide our clients with the strongest support by using an in-house combination of issues professionals and experts in the science to ensure the strongest and most effective plans are put in place.
In this age of pharmaceutical comms, a partnership approach between traditional issues management, digital comms and science is becoming more essential.
VIEWS IN BRIEF
What is the best way to keep employees informed during a crisis?
HG: In many cases, I still think face-to-face communications and 'town hall meetings' work well because it's harder to misinterpret. But these are limited. We've used digital video of the CEO sent via email and that was particularly effective. No matter how you communicate, speed, accuracy and credibility are essential.
DK: I agree. All I would add is that, in combination with using the right channels in a timely manner, it is also prudent to consider which messages need to be selected, prioritised and delivered to which internal audiences.