Defending the indefensible?

Big pharma deserves some good PR - and there are increasing opportunities to create it.

Christine Chapman is a senior director at Cohn & Wolfe

The pharmaceutical industry rarely enj-oys a positive press - the media seem to almost feast upon the negative: a drug found to be risking patient safety, a drug trial gone horribly awry, an expose of questionable practices. All of which have been rightly revealed. But, in terms of reputational balance, where is the balance? Is enough being done to PR the pharma industry and those who work within it?

There are a few key facts every savvy healthcare PR professional keeps in their back pocket for dinner parties or family gatherings when criticism rises simply upon hearing that you work for 'big, bad pharma':

  • It takes 12 years and costs around £1.15bn before a new medicine comes to market.
  • For one medicine that produces return on investment, 25,000 compounds will have been tested, of which approximately 25 will have progressed into clinical trials and five will receive approval for marketing. UK pharma invests around £11.8m every day in R&D.
  • The pharmaceutical sector now makes a greater contribution to the UK economy than any other high-tech industry, employing more than 25,000 people in the UK.

(Source: ABPI)

It's easy to be defensive, but comms plays a vital role in supporting the value of the industry. Most of us reading this are ambassadors for pharma and, like it or not, we are on the front line, not just for its commercial success but for the public's health, hearts and minds.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has a programme of work specifically designed to enhance the industry's reputation, looking at ethical standards, medical education, clinical trials transparency and positive collaboration. But to truly drive success, the individual member companies have to internalise their response to these topics and make them real if they are to drive forward the reputation agenda.

GlaxoSmithKline's commitment to publish all clinical trial results is an example of this being brought to life, even if the impetus arose from being pilloried for past bad practice. From the comms perspective, reputational issues can only really be addressed through changes of policy that are substantial, transparent and authentic, and - most importantly - meaningful to the industry's stakeholders.

Reputation needs to be addressed at the coalface too. For most pharma marketers, brand sits at the centre and market access is the new nirvana, the goal by which the industry measures its success. But gaining market access means more than delivering value to stakeholders through a new medicine and a compelling economic model.

Today, a drug that delivers against an unmet clinical need is just the price of entry. We now need to show our value is extensive and precious. How can we impact ever more complicated issues? If a patient lives in an area where bus services have been cut, how can the industry help deliver value by facilitating access to services? If a new anticoagulant is designed to replace warfarin, how could pharma help payers and providers engage with the reconfiguration of anticoagulation clinics and up their expertise in atrial fibrillation? If rural patients can't travel to a GP's surgery, is there a role for pharma to partner with health service providers and tech companies to develop virtual GP surgeries?

Such questions remain to be answered, but a couple of things are clear: the industry now has a role to play in addressing issues around infrastructure, services and supply chain; and comms is increasingly important, to ensure stakeholders are aware of pharma's contribution and to help identify the opportunities that can be taken forward and multiplied.

Christine Chapman is a senior director at Cohn & Wolfe.


What comms challenges does the increase in self-diagnosis present?

Treating and curing patients is why we do what we do. If patients and their loved ones use the wealth of information now at their fingertips, therein lies enormous potential for communicators to facilitate patient empowerment. But there is also a responsibility to ensure access to quality information and deter inaccurate presentation to primary care professionals.

Which TV programme title best sums up the culture of your agency?

Africa - we're fascinating, diverse and full of life. Like the programme makers, we're highly dedicated to our work and are always looking to explore.

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