Drug companies fail to link PR activities to product ads

Drug companies fail to link PR activities to product ads

Drug company executives often lament that their companies do many things to benefit society, but stakeholders ? particularly their most strident critics ? seem blind to them.

These executives are finally beginning to realize why: their primary interface with consumers was ? and still is ? direct-to-consumer advertising.

The lack of integration between different elements of the marketing mix is evident in the trust paradox.

On the one hand, pharmaceutical companies have become very sophisticated in using the many facets of PR: influencer outreach, ally development, web-based forums, and even media relations.

But, on the other, they typically employ these tactics only when they want to talk about the parent company, and fail to link their products (and more specifically, product promotion) to that corporate brand, and what it stands for.

Johnson & Johnson is a striking example of a company that understands this concept. Its new Tylenol ads feature actual risk management executives telling would-be customers that they would rather people stop taking their pills than take them in an unsafe way.

Non-advertising outreach is important, but it was ludicrous to assume that just because a company was engaging patients through advocacy groups, or opening the lines of communication with reporters, that it could continue to advertise products in the same way. It would be, quite plainly, hypocritical.

The new DTC guidelines from PhRMA, therefore, are more than just the sum of their parts. The new guidelines are a victory for the drug industry's critics, but also an opportunity for the industry at large.

After all, their content ? for anyone who has worked in or covered the industry ? was hardly startling. On every podium throughout the spring, industry executives have been speaking with a single voice about nearly every one of those principles: risk communications, physician communications, and disease awareness.

But the guidelines allow the industry to present a new face to consumers using the medium with which they are most familiar, and to link those ads to the many good things that companies do ? namely patient assistance and corporate social responsibility programs.

As one industry executive said, what better way to show patients that you've been listening to their DTC concerns than by reforming DTC?

Even if budgets are shifted ? as anecdotal evidence suggests ? so that a greater emphasis is put on PR, PR and advertising must still go hand-in-hand.

DTC advertising might be just one component of the many ways drug companies interact with their stakeholders. But it is nonetheless a highly visual representation of all of those other forums.

It would be na?ve to suggest that by changing DTC ads, the drug industry will suddenly stem all criticism. But at a time when regulators are breathing down the industry's neck, so to speak, its marketing tactics must be above reproach.

If the face of the industry is too clever, too cheeky, or too flashy, companies will undermine their corporate messages in an attempt to sell products. In the end, it won't work, and will cost them valuable equity: trust and goodwill.

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