Conference report: Healthcare - Keeping pharma fighting fit

PRWeek's Pharma Communications conference explored the increasing challenges facing pharma firms. Hannah Crown outlines the highlights.

Beating the bugs: Roche's media handling of its antiviral product during a flu pandemic was discussed
Beating the bugs: Roche's media handling of its antiviral product during a flu pandemic was discussed

The importance of an integrated comms strategy - whether it be consulting your legal team ahead of social media planning or ensuring comms teams sit together - was a key message at PRWeek's Pharma Comms conference last week. Speakers ranged from NHS comms director Colin Douglas to BBC health correspondent Eleanor Bradford.


Kai Gait, Digital pharma freelancer, formerly of Roche and GSK

Gait discussed ways healthcare comms professionals can create successful social media campaigns. Suggestions included getting buy-in from legal and compliance in advance, investing the right resources and allowing users to have control over content for greater engagement.

He argued that social media projects often fail because they come up against legal and compliance at sign-off. 'They need to be in the room from the outset - just an hour could mean a different outcome for your project,' he said.

He also said it was better only to focus on the channels that you know you can manage, and that comms professionals needed to have the right resources in place to properly manage social media initiatives.

For example, Janssen's Living with ADHD website was designed to allow users to share their experiences of living with ADHD. But the site stopped allowing user-generated videos after specific products were mentioned.

He urged healthcare PR professionals to make sure social media projects were resourced for the long term, with a dedicated manager, or had an exit strategy such as Janssen's multi-award-winning psoriasis Facebook page, control of which was handed over to another psoriasis group.

Gait pointed out Allergan's Twitter page was updated infrequently. 'This is not inviting for users,' he said.


Susie Hackett, Director of comms and healthcare strategy, Roche

Roche's Susie Hackett discussed the media handling around one of its products when a flu virus pandemic broke out in 2009. The product was an antiviral, which was provided before a vaccine was developed.

'Our responsibility was to ensure understanding of supply and demand. We needed the Government to understand that we would not be able to supply a large amount of our antiviral when the epidemic hit. The public affairs team took a key role in communicating that with the Department of Health,' she said.

Key action taken during the pandemic

  • Managing media coverage - ensuring reporting around the medicine was factual and accurate, and trying to instil a sense of calm/limit sensationalism.
  • The comms team was kept in the loop about any meetings with the Department of Health in case the media reported on them.
  • Healthcare professionals were educated about how the antiviral should be used.
  • The message from the UK was consistent with the one from Switzerland.


Eleanor Bradford, Health correspondent, BBC Scotland

BBC Scotland's health correspondent Eleanor Bradford was asked questions by delegates on how to best achieve coverage.

Q We are doing less media relations now, so how do we keep our relationship going?

A I think a quick coffee will last a whole year. I rarely go to events because you can get just as much information over a quiet coffee. Also, think laterally: your office has lots of people who might be caught up in RBS banking problems or a crisis: the people we're looking for that day.

Q Case studies are a becoming a nightmare to find because the degree of control over what they say is so high. What do you suggest?

A We would be suspicious of any case studies you put forward anyway and much happier if you had just done the leg work for us, e.g. spoken to a charity a couple of weeks in advance that will put forward case studies independently of you. Also, make sure the case studies and any spokespeople are in the area on which we report.


Anne-Toni Rodgers, Payer lead, global pricing and market access, AstraZeneca

Rodgers defined market access as 'ensuring that patients have access to products and services when and where they need them, and that in turn the products and service are fairly priced and reimbursed'.

She argued that cross-functional working between market access and comms was key and that the comms team needed to be involved from the start.

She also advised PR professionals not to forget the power of patient organisations. 'They may be supportive or reflect their memberships' genuine concerns. Work in partnership with them. Don't just think they are there to promote your products,' she said.

She advises PROs to ask the following questions of the market access team:

  • Are patients aware of their options?
  • Does the national tariff enable hospitals to get fairly reimbursed for your therapy?
  • Do policy makers think your product is clinically effective and cost-effective?
  • Do clinical guidelines favour other products?
  • How effective is your company in demonstrating value?


Rebecca Creamer Commissioning editor, Health Service Journal - 'The days of sending an article and praying it goes into print have gone. I want contributors to be tweeting, starting discussions on our LinkedIn group and being happy to take questions on best practice. The articles that stand out have a sense of community and discussion.'

Kevin Grogan World news online editor, Pharma Times - 'There is still very much a place for press releases. Direct contact is also vital: 15 minutes with a CEO is invaluable. I'm not interested in phase 1 data.'

Neil Durham Deputy editor, GP magazine - 'Cold-calling with a prepared script, asking if a press release has been received is a big no-no. If we are interested we will call you. Also, there is nothing more boring than a corporate Twitter feed. It's the same as pumping out a press release. It is much better to follow people with opinions.'


Colin Douglas, Director of NHS comms, Department of Health

The NHS' comms director Colin Douglas said the changes caused by the Health and Social Care Act will require major support from healthcare PR professionals.

The Department of Health's QIPP programme means the NHS has to make efficiency savings of up to £20bn by 2015.

The challenge for healthcare comms is to support new NHS leaders to implement changes in order to meet their efficiency saving targets, he said.

'The newly established Clinical Commissioning Groups are inheriting a system that is in a good state of health with a good reputation and continuity of services. But the system is facing massive changes. My priority is to ensure the comms support is there to engage, develop and project a vision for the future,' he added.

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