Pharma comms needs to reinvent itself to stay relevant, says new report

Pharma risks losing its influence unless comms teams take risks and radically change the way they work, according to a new report by the Healthcare Communications Association (HCA) and specialist healthcare comms consultancy 90TEN.

It draws on the views of comms chiefs from some of the world's biggest pharmaceutical firms, including Roche, Novartis UK, Pfizer Global, Sanofi UK, AstraZeneca, Celgene, and Ferring Pharmaceuticals.

The report is the result of a 'Cannes or Canned' initiative to increase creativity and innovation in healthcare and scientific comms.

Losing ground

The project was launched last year after pharma comms failed to be among the Grand Prix winners at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity for the second year running.

Edel McCaffrey, HCA Executive Committee member, says in the report: "Awards aren't everything, but Cannes really made us think. Given the life-changing subject matter we deal with every day, healthcare should be leading the communications industry in terms of innovation."

The report warns: "Other industries are leading the way in looking beyond traditional marketing approaches."

It says pharma comms "has been slow to embrace social media and respond to changes in the way people consume media".

Reputational issues

"In spite of its mission to prevent, treat and cure diseases, pharma's reputation continues to lag behind that of other industries."

It suggests that: "Bringing our industry's innovations to life through communications that engage, educate and inspire could play a part in rebuilding a more positive reputation."

Unless comms becomes more innovative, "our relevance could ebb away", according to the report.

No excuses

"Healthcare communicators must avoid the pitfall of using regulations as an excuse for shying away from innovation," the report says.

Finance and insurance are industries that are subject to strict regulations and yet they "regularly produce award-winning creative communications".

Comms teams should think of regulations as guidelines to help them achieve work "of the highest possible ethical standards", rather than a barrier.

The fear of making mistakes, such as misinterpreting regulations, is a "challenge to creativity" that "can make us reluctant to be the first to step into uncharted territory, and push us towards staying on the same well-trodden, 'safe' paths."

However, the report argues: "As long as our intention is in accordance with the regulations and we are setting out to deliver work of the highest standards, we can let go of this fear and free ourselves to focus on the best way to achieve our objectives."

Obstacles to be overcome

Four major barriers to innovation in healthcare comms are outlined in the report, which was released late last month.

One is a lack of understanding of what stakeholders and audiences want, with campaigns "developed in a vacuum, with educated guesswork in place of the genuine customer insights that should be shaping them".

The report adds: "We've become risk-averse and fear failure: we have a tendency to see innovation as being difficult and risky, encouraging us to stick to 'safer' options."

Another obstacle is a failure to support people with the right skills. "If we shape our teams based on the skills we have needed in the past and don't create an environment which celebrates people with different experiences, we miss out on the opportunity to expand our capacity for innovation."

Overcomplicating everything is another barrier. "Onerous planning processes, a tendency to make things bigger and more complex than they need to be, and slow paths to approval prevent us from being agile and responsive."

Showing what good looks like

Best practice is highlighted under four themes. These include being human and responsive, as exemplified in Sanofi's response to Roseanne Barr alleging that it was one of their products that made her post a racist tweet.

Another theme, putting yourself in other people's shoes, is illustrated by the Flight HIV101 campaign, which used a drag queen and a dating app to encourage HIV-positive gay men to take care of their health

Keeping it simple is another approach that can work, with an 'immunity charm' awareness campaign to raise immunisation rates in Afghanistan being one example.

Comms teams should also "understand the human truth", the report says. This was the case in a 'Small Talk Saves Lives' campaign - an idea based on the insight that an everyday conversation can interrupt someone’s suicidal thoughts.

Recipe for change

The report makes a series of recommendations, which include chief executives of pharma firms creating cultures "where innovation thrives in communications as much as it does in drug discovery".

Companies should also recruit people from different industries and backgrounds and "enable them to apply the full range of their skills and talents to our communications challenges".

In addition, processes should be simplified and streamlined to enable "agile and responsive" comms.

And more time should be spent on getting to know stakeholders, to gain "true insights into their lives that can inform our work and ensure that we meet their needs".

Another recommendation is to place experimentation and learning at the heart of healthcare communications.

"Applying a 'test and learn' approach could help communicators experiment with new approaches in an achievable way, and make communications programmes more flexible and responsive," it says.

Agency perspective

Commenting on the report's findings, Peter Impey, managing director of 90TEN's comms division, said: "As healthcare communicators we help to put the pharmaceutical industry's life-changing discoveries into patients' hands, but healthcare is changing fast and, unless we think creatively and embrace innovation, we risk losing our voice."

He welcomed the recommendations, describing them as "a recipe for making our communications braver, bolder and more creative".

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