Today's consumers know their medical history. Parents know which boxes are checked on their son's chart. A wife knows which cholesterol medication her husband takes. And, a mom knows how to Google a condition and research any questions about her family's health.
Without a doubt, the establishment of social media and the informed consumer has driven much of the change in healthcare communications since 1998.
“The consumer became empowered... facilitated by the technology changes,” says Ray Jordan, VP of public affairs and corporate communications at Johnson & Johnson.
Now, women are called the healthcare decision-makers – the gatekeepers of the family's health, notes Greg Donaldson, national VP of corporate communications at the American Cancer Society (ACS). PR campaigns for men's lifestyle drugs – such as Pfizer's Viagra and Eli Lilly's Cialis – target women as well as men.
This sophisticated, tailored approach has become the mainstay of healthcare PR. In the past 10 years, communicators have built multimillion-dollar campaigns to support breast cancer and AIDS, says Diane Weiser, president and COO of WeissComm Partners, but also for lesser-known and -discussed ailments like depression, restless legs syndrome, Crohn's disease, and fibromyalgia.
At the start of the millennium, pharma companies focused primarily on blockbuster product launches, adds Weiser. WeissComm's client roster is predominately biotech-focused, although the firm began working with pharma clients in recent years.
The introduction of lifestyle drugs, like Cialis and Viagra, around this time triggered the onset of the healthcare industry's focus on health and wellness, says Bob Chandler, cofounder of New York-based Chandler Chicco Agency, which sold to inVentiv Health in 2007. Companies like Coca-Cola want to talk health strategy now, he notes.
“We're heading into the golden age of public relations,” he says, noting that PR pros and healthcare strategy have become much more sophisticated. No longer are accounts run by former journalists, but the first wave of communicators who graduated with PR degrees and health specializations, adds agency cofounder Gianfranco Chicco.
Even government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took a hard look at the changing media scene in the wake of the anthrax and SARS scares, 9/11, and hurricanes. Now, the Atlanta-based agency is a leader in digital media efforts and has been eyeing mobile media as its next platform to better communicate with its 300 million consumers.
“We really learned a great deal about emergency and crisis communications,” says Jay Bernhardt, director of the National Center for Health Marketing at the CDC. “We're willing to embrace and engage new media.”
But, while social media and consumer-driven healthcare have defined much of where healthcare communications is going, the decade also saw its challenges, as pharma companies struggled with their reputations and consumers became increasingly disillusioned with the industry.
Most professionals point to the Vioxx withdrawal as a watershed moment for healthcare communications. Prior to the recall of Merck's painkiller, media criticism focused on issues of drug pricing and access, recalls Peter Pitts, SVP and director of global health affairs for MS&L, and former associate FDA commissioner for external relations.
“Overnight, pricing concerns became safety concerns,” he says, adding that the event made healthcare a hyper-political issue and led to a focus on drug safety and the risk and benefit debate for the past four years.
With Big Pharma at center stage, transparency became the new buzzword. In an effort to improve brand reputation, companies announced they would post clinical trial results online and disclose conflicts of interest with physicians. Others chose to focus on digital strategies and advocacy campaigns.
Few companies have actually risked regulatory and legal concerns for social media ventures, but those that have engaged in such efforts have emerged as thought leaders.
Jordan says that launching a corporate blog, JNJBTW.com, has given the J&J brand a leadership position in digital health communications. He adds that the company makes sure that any social media initiative is written through the company's “own voice.”
GlaxoSmithKline also won plaudits when it created the alliconnect.com blog for the launch of its weight management drug Alli, says Helene Ellison, president and CEO of New York-based HealthStar Public Relations, the agency that helped GSK with the launch of myalli.com and questioneverything.com.
Donaldson says that for ACS, essentially a community organization, social media became an obvious step in the dialogue. The nonprofit has used Second Life, Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace as part of its overall strategy to invest in the consumer-focused approach to health and wellness.
Because everything, including the news cycle, is in real time, healthcare communicators have learned to shape their messages to be more targeted, personalized, individualized, and instant, says Chantal Beaudry, EVP and MD for Euro RSCG Life PR in New York.
“We have an opportunity to rise to the occasion, to use more of a strategy,” she notes. “That's where it's shifting... It's more: What's the big picture?”
1998 - Viagra approval for US
Pfizer's erectile dysfunction drug led the way for increased DTC advertising, which was legalized in 1997
2004 - Vioxx recall
The recall of Merck's painkiller pointed out the flaws in the FDA's approval and communications process
2006 - Gardasil approval
The HPV vaccine set off a major communications battle between doctors and conservative groups
2007 - FDA launches Risk Communication Advisory Committee
The committee serves as a means to better evaluate the risks and benefits of the drugs, products, and devices it monitors
2008 - The presidential campaign
Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama broadly discussed universal healthcare, tax credits, and reform
Five memorable healthcare companies
The drug company launched blockbusters Lipitor and Viagra and had a number of key mergers and acquisitions with Warner-Lambert and Pharmacia that led to its place as the largest pharmaceutical company in the world
The pharmaceutical company saw both struggle and success with two blockbuster drugs, the painkiller Vioxx and HPV vaccine Gardasil. Through an extensive marketing and lobbying campaign, Merck took a nearly unknown condition and pushed it to the forefront of women's health prevention
One of the few biotechs to make a name for itself in the pharma world, Genentech also found itself at the crux of the debate of drug pricing for its expensive cancer med, Avastin, and, later, at the core of pharma/biotech merger talk
Johnson & Johnson
J&J, while always consumer focused, acquired a consumer health division from Pfizer and also took its first stab at social media with the launch of a corporate blog, making it one of the first pharma companies to utilize the digital dialogue space
Known for being on the forefront of disclosure, GSK voluntarily posted its findings on diabetes drug Avandia on its Web site. The pharma also went on a state-by-state media tour in 2005 to counter hits to its reputation