The fact that consumers are increasingly savvy about corporations and their products and services is perhaps more starkly evident in the world of pharma than anywhere else.
We all know someone who's gone WebMD-crazy after feeling unwell, until they are confident that they have successfully identified eight possible conditions and treatments - and their attendant risks.
Ironically, it is the relentless push from all directions for transparency from corporations, governments, and any other body, that frequently leads to this glut of information and a public that is on the one hand empowered, but, on the other hand, overwhelmed. There is no doubt that this is the information age. But it is still in its first period, bringing to mind the analogy that the Internet is like the greatest library in the world - with all the books strewn on the floor.
It's not just the general public who is using the new abundance of medical resources and information; it is also other members of the medical community. Few companies at present must feel that more keenly than GlaxoSmithKline, whose diabetes drug, Avandia, was recently reported in the New England Journal of Medicine to carry a heightened cardiac risk.
The cardiologists behind the study were able to do their own research because GSK voluntarily posted its own findings on the drug on its own Web site. GSK had also submitted information to the FDA that echoes the heart risk findings. However, it disputes the methodology of these current claims, saying the cardiac risk is not out of line with other drugs in the category, and the FDA says it had alerted doctors to the drug's potential heart risks and will review the drug.
While it is not (yet) a legal requirement for pharma companies to achieve this level of transparency, GSK is far from the only company doing it. (It also recently started disclosing its grant donations.) However the story unfolds (and it may have taken several turns by press time), the fact remains that the communications teams working on behalf of companies whose research and findings are increasingly open to third-party analysis operate in an environment in which everyone may not be an expert, but everyone has an opinion.
This disclosure model can be used for good - and some companies, including Novartis, say they are benefiting from opening up their findings to the medical community. But now is the time that the PR pros who work for such complex clients as pharma companies have to understand more than ever the science behind the products they are representing, not just the ideal end result of their use. It's true that 100 scientists can interpret the same data 100 different ways - and for a large percentage of them to reveal accurate findings that may well contradict others.
So pharma companies and their communications representatives tread a fine line between supporting the integrity of their products and taking seriously the concerns that other medical experts raise about them, not to mention quelling the fears of consumers' amateur interpretations. For consumers, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing - that goes for corporations, too.