People will always get ill, and will always need health products,
regardless of the health of the economy.
This is the thinking behind Edelman PR Worldwide last week joining
Ketchum, Hill & Knowlton and Cohn & Wolfe in the creation of a consumer
healthcare PR division.
While the global economy is suffering, Edelman's move indicates the
consumer healthcare sector is fighting fit. That's certainly how CEO
John Mahony sees it. He has set the division the target of £500,000 fees in its first year.
Edelman faces a challenge in that most players in this sector are niche
agencies rather than generalists. Firms such as Jo Spink PR and Maureen
Cropper Communications (now part of GCI) are already established, as are
healthcare PR firms such as Sante Communications and Shire Hall.
The specialists rub their hands at the sector's prospects. Kirstie
Mackenzie, a Spink account manager says clients tend to favour
specialist firms for this kind of work and gives the example of
athlete's foot powder Daktarin - made by Johnson and Johnson MSD
Consumer Pharmaceuticals, a major Spink client.
Plans to garner coverage for the product included August's National Foot
Health Week and link-ups with the trade bodies for footcare. This kind
of work is typical of its genre but effective, part of the reason client
side buyers are increasingly enabling PR firms in the sector to
Edelman senior consultant Rose Black says political developments could
also prove crucial in keeping the sector buoyant. She says that the
NHS's commitment to 'empowering patients' includes a willingness to
re-categorise drugs so they no longer need to be prescribed by doctors
but can be picked up over the counter: 'The will is there,' she says.
'The Government wants to relist as many products as possible.'
The restrictions on the promotion of pharma products mean as long as a
drug is classified POM (prescription only status), there is little scope
for PROs. Once they are reclassified to 'P', where they can be purchased
over a pharmacist's counter, and possibly, GSL, (general sale) the
possibilities become much wider.
The Government has not made any explicit commitment to reclassifying
drugs, and figures are hard to come by as companies apply in confidence
for products to be 'switched'.
However, PROs in the sector believe the climate of opinion within the
NHS, taken together with pressure on the national drugs bill, means it
is inevitable a steady drip of 'switched' products will enter the
market, providing business opportunities for agencies.
Mike Kan, director of H&K health and pharmaceutical practice, is
cautious: 'It's exciting, but it's not going to be an avalanche
Within the sector, treatments for ailments such as coughs, colds and
skincare are more suitable for reclassification than products for more
serious conditions. For manufacturers' in-house teams, reclassification
of drugs, can have beneficial PR consequences.
Two weeks ago, GlaxoSmithKline's Niquitin CQ nicotine-replacement
lozenges were launched amid extensive media coverage. This followed a
process that saw the bulk of nicotine replacement products reclassified
from POM to P or GSL. A gsk spokeswoman said reclassifaction provided
huge PR opportunities. 'Because of the reclassification of nicotine
replacement products, we were able to gain a lot of exposure for
Niquitin CQ,' she said.
However, she stressed that once products had escaped the most severe
restrictions of The 1988 Medicines Act there was still a large amount of
regulation governing how they are promoted and a need for sensitivity.
This requirement is a subject healthcare PROs return to again and
Products such as anti-impotence or incontinence treatments require deft
handling to avoid causing offence or embarrassment: 'You don't
necessarily want to talk to families sitting around the breakfast table
with the TV on about these subjects,' Black says.
The public is only one audiences consumer health PROs address. They also
need to build understanding among healthcare professionals that may be
involved - GPs, specialists, pharmacists and nurses.
Some PROs point to the differences between promoting health foods
requiring a more traditional consumer approach and say, some of the
equipment use to manage diabetes - likely to be chosen following advice
from a range of professionals.
Since the abolition of resale price maintenance for certain categories
of drugs last year, healthcare PROs have had to deal with a new factor:
supermarkets selling cheap generic versions of their drugs. Yet what is
likely to be a challenge for manufacturers as recession approaches is
another opportunity for PROs.
As manufacturers are forced to stress the value of their product and set
it apart from generic offerings they will increasingly call on the help
of PR agencies. For more specific products the outlook is equally good,
it is claimed.
One insider says: 'Niche market medicines have to be sold using
carefully controlled marketing techniques. That is inherently more our
domain than that of the ad agencies.'
Of course, the sheer size of the sector is also likely to help guarantee
its well-being in a recession. Cohn & Wolfe associate director of
consumer health Caroline Page points to the vastly growing range of
health products on the shelves, the expansion of the sector to include
foods and beauty products and the flowering of specialist consumer media
covering health products: 'I wouldn't use the word "booming",' she says.
'But I think the sector is fairly recession proof.'