PHARMA'S PR DIAGNOSIS: Healthcare comms execs outline sector challenges

NEW YORK: Over 150 communications professionals gathered at PRWeek's inaugural healthcare conference, "Pharma's PR Diagnosis," to hear from a series of speakers and panelists about the power of PR in the pharmaceutical industry.

NEW YORK: Over 150 communications professionals gathered at PRWeek's inaugural healthcare conference, "Pharma's PR Diagnosis," to hear from a series of speakers and panelists about the power of PR in the pharmaceutical industry.

The November 20 event focused on the branding, integrated marketing, regulatory, and ethical issues dealt with on a daily basis by healthcare communicators.

Following the unveiling of Ernst & Young's inaugural global pharmaceutical report (PRWeek, November 25), Steve Lampert, senior director of public affairs for AstraZeneca, discussed branding strategies for products and corporations in the industry. Citing hostile public attitudes, a highly politically charged environment, patent expirations, and industry consolidation, Lampert said corporate and product PR must work together to make pharmaceutical brands effective. The communications infrastructure at a company, according to the presentation, should be aligned with this strategy.

"A brand does not just happen," explained Lampert. "It is built by the people in your organization."

He added that developing a corporate brand strengthens a pharmaceutical company's corporate reputation, which is a step toward bettering the image of the entire industry. Lampert encouraged participants to take a leadership role in the branding process because of the potential greater implications.

In another panel, Michael Durand, director of global healthcare for Porter Novelli, also offered his views about the importance of skilled communications specialists in a reputationally challenged industry. Alongside Kathryn Metcalf, CEO of Cohn & Wolfe's New York office, and Gloria Stone, director of global PR for Novartis Oncology, his panel discussed the role PR practitioners play in disseminating complex clinical and scientific data to the general public.

"We must be prepared to ask the difficult questions, and sometimes make people uncomfortable - particularly those uncomfortable with PR," encouraged Durand. "We must be prepared to explain and defend our views vigorously."

Communications pros, Durand says, need to be confident in the value of their contribution to the industry. "As long as companies value what reporters write and what patients say, (PR pros) will be in a great position to contribute to the company."

The thorny issue of procurement was discussed in another panel by Kathy Cripps, president of the Council of PR Firms; Marilyn Castaldi, GM of Hill & Knowlton's New York office; and Jerome White, global sourcing manager for Eli Lilly. The panel acknowledged the increased use by drug companies of procurement agents in PR-agency review processes.

Regulatory issues facing drug companies and the communications teams that represent them was the subject of another panel, which included Ilyssa Levins, chairman of GCI's healthcare practice. Levins described compliant healthcare PR as mirroring the practice of good medicine. Being "expert-driven," "evidence-based," and "patient-empowered," according to Levins, is necessary in navigating the regulatory environment.

Finally, Jeffrey Richardson, director of corporate communications for Amgen, spoke of the ethical issues facing the biotechnology sector. Citing misunderstanding as a reason for much of the controversy surrounding biotech, Richardson called for communications professionals to "begin with the basics" in dispelling information to key constituencies. "The best PR is all about truth," concluded Richardson, "but truth without understanding is meaningless."

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