A relationship that works well both ways

It is very important for Big Pharma to learn how to work well with patient advocacy groups

Good relationships between advocacy groups and businesses can provide mutually beneficial outcomes. Positive relationships between pharmaceutical companies and patient advocacy groups, in particular, have often produced great results for both.

“Pharma companies need credible ways of reaching consumers,” says Christina Nicols, VP and director of research at Ketchum. “Advocacy-group programs haven't decreased, despite the economy.”

Nicols recently conducted one-on-one interviews with 12 healthcare nonprofits about working with pharma companies. The groups cited disclosure and transparency as top factors necessary for successful relationships with pharma companies.

“They only want money they can track back to their mission statement,” Nichols says. “Mutual missions should be understood.” AstraZeneca (AZ) works with a number of advocacy groups, and Kate McKenzie, senior manager for ally development at AZ, agrees that mutual respect is essential.

“We work with advocacy groups because they're experts,” McKenzie explains. “In oncology for example, we look for organizations with expertise that can help us design materials or vice versa. Treat advocacy groups as partners, not as vendors.”

McKenzie cites the recent partnership between AZ and the American Cancer Society (ACS) in which AZ funds 50 “patient navigators” – hospital workers who assist with cancer-care coordination and provide support and materials to patients.

“AZ and ACS [want] better outcomes for patients and increased access to resources,” McKenzie says. “Both felt this was a great undertaking and a commitment that neither had experienced to this extent. It's a step forward for both [sides].”

Ongoing weekly meetings between AZ and ACS help keep the program and the relationship running smoothly. ACS provides AZ with quarterly reports that show the program's value to cancer patients – an important metric for AZ, McKenzie notes.

Nicols adds that measurement is important for advocates also, and they've become “more sophisticated” at it. “The more measurement for outcomes instead of media impressions the better,” she says. “Both sides need measurement, and it makes the relationship solid.”

McKenzie notes that some companies make the mistake of just giving money to advocacy groups without actually participating in projects. “If you [align] with groups you need to be seen [as being] involved,” she says.

Advocacy groups can also provide pharma companies with greater patient insight. One Ketchum pharma client partners with a small breast cancer group that provides them “a level of authenticity [in patient feedback] that you just can't buy,” Nichols says. The client has used the feedback to create a Web site for breast cancer patients.

Abbie Fink, VP and GM HMA Public Relations, which represents advocacy group Arizona Bridge to Independent Living (ABIL), adds that “advocacy groups don't want to be brought into the fold for a sympathy vote or to put a different face on an issue.”

Nichols, McKenzie, and Fink all stress establishing stable points of contact between nonprofits and companies. Nicols' survey showed that “staff churn” at pharma companies can frustrate advocacy groups.

“A project [starts] with one person with whom they establish common goals,” she adds. “Then that person leaves and it falls apart.”

Advocacy groups and companies can collide over points of view. Fink says, “The desire should be to share viewpoints and come to a mutual understanding. As long as we can get parties into a conversation, we've found that to be successful.”

Technique tips

  • Treat advocacy groups as partners, not vendors
  • Clearly identify contact people and talk regularly
  • Develop relationships based on common goals

  • Just give money; participate in advocacy programs
  • Forget to measure outcomes as well as media impressions
  • Refuse to communicate if a difference of opinion arises

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