Big pharma needs to start standing up for itself

In the past century global life expectancies have risen from 40 to 70 years, writes John Higginson of ICG.

It is time for pharma to stand up for itself, writes John Higginson
It is time for pharma to stand up for itself, writes John Higginson
It is one of mankind's greatest achievements and has been driven largely by advances in medical science. A whole host of illnesses and diseases, such as polio and measles, are now wiped out or under control.  

More than 300 million people were killed by smallpox in the 20th century alone. The last death was in 1977. 

No other industry has played a greater part in medical advancement than the pharmaceutical industry. 
It is an industry that is dedicated to improving, elongating and saving lives. 

And yet according to a recent PatientView global survey it sat just above tobacco and just below big oil for public trust. 

How is this possible? 

In part it is the result of the distaste people feel for companies profiting from those who are ill. This is a criticism that needs to be tackled head on. 

It is this profit that ultimately paid for the research and development of all the life-saving drugs people now have access to today. 

If people want to know what a world looks like where profits are not made from pharmaceutical advances they need only to look at the world before the late 19th century. 

But there is a more subtle reason for the industry's failure to fight back. The pharmaceutical industry is risk averse by nature. 

With lives in its hands we are grateful for this. But what is a good quality for running a pharmaceutical company does not necessarily translate into a good quality for communicating for that same firm. 

Good communications requires boldness. And it means making your case succinctly when under attack. 

When Turing Pharmaceuticals, run by rogue former hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli, bought the rights to an HIV drug earlier this year and then raised the price by 5,000 per cent there were many happy to point to this as an example of the way the industry behaves as a whole. 

The industry did not do enough to refute this claim. The silence led to what is known in common law as 'consent through silence'. 

There is no other industry in the world today with a greater gap between the good that it does for society and how that same society perceives it. 

I recently held a breakfast briefing with some of the heads of communications of some of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies. 

They all know the good that their companies do and despair at the perception gap. 

But so often they are held back by CEOs and boards who treat their communications with the same risk aversion as they take to running the rest of their business. 

Unless under direct threat, they are unwilling to raise their heads above the parapet. The gap between perception and reality is where we as PR professionals live. 

It is our job to close this by reasoned argument and information dissemination. But we can only achieve it if we are allowed to do so. 

It is time to let those who are willing and able to speak up for the industry to do so. The time to stick heads above the parapet is now.

John Higginson is head of corporate comms at ICG

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