OPINION: Pharma sector facing mounting PR challenge

Media attacks on big pharmaceutical companies - summed up by last week's Dying for Drugs on Channel 4 - seem relentless. So is pharma the new Big Tobacco?

Channel 4's Dying for Drugs documentary, broadcast last week, was the latest attack on pharmaceutical companies. Well-received by many viewers, but derided by the companies themselves, the programme is the high-water mark of very public attacks on the behaviour of big drug companies in the media.

The documentary looked at the processes behind clinical trials and drug pricing, and picked our Novartis and Pfizer for particular scrutiny. The pharma firms turned their guns on Channel 4, with Novartis bemoaning what it termed a lack of 'thoughtful and open discussion' before the programme reached air, and Pfizer claiming it represented a 'distorted picture' of reality. Both these views were dismissed by the broadcaster.

With lawsuits pending over allegations that those taking part in clinical trials were misled and serious claims made over access to drugs, in addition to the unedifying South African court case attempting to restrict the supply of cheaper 'generic' Aids treatments, the onslaught of negative publicity invites comparisons between the issues faced by drug companies today and those faced by the tobacco industry over the past 20 years.

On the face of it, this is odd. While there may be grounds to criticise pharma firms for their dedication to shareholder value through profit, it is hard to attack them on the same grounds as one would choose for Big Tobacco. Smoking kills people in their millions. Drugs save lives.

Indeed, Warwick business school Corporate Citizenship Unit director Professor Alyson Warhurst plays down the suggestion that the industries face the same PR problem: 'They are very different - tobacco firms stand alone among all other sectors. It would be facile and incorrect to compare the two given the fundamentally different nature of what they do.'

But in terms of growing public doubt that pharma is acting in good faith and in the public interest - and the consequent relentless media attacks on every aspect of pharma activity - the reputation challenges do bear comparison.

Warhurst says the main challenge for pharma is that the entire industry is tarred with the same brush as its worst peformer.

'Some firms have a good reputation in terms of the dialogue they undertake with stakeholders. Others have different reputations due to the work they have done in the developing world - there's a real differentiation taking place,' she explains.

'The lesson to be learned from other sectors is that leaders are dragged down to the level of the worst performer. In terms of pharma as a whole, unless all companies improve their reputations they all risk being viewed in the same way.'

Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) comms director Richard Ley says there is a discrepancy between public and media perceptions.

He insists there is no evidence to suggest the public share the media's concerns about the behaviour of pharma firms - on drug availability, boardroom pay and assorted other misdemeanours.

But he goes out of his way to deny suggestions that, because patients and medics are not in a position to shun a drug brand, the companies do not need a good reputation: 'It is always important to be aware of your reputation. There are aspects that control a company's success, and reputation is one of them, as it can easily influence a company's share price.

'But to judge opinion you would need research, and that hasn't been done.

We would hope the public sees the information put forward by the pharmaceutical companies. One of the main criticisms of (Dying for Drugs) was that the producers did not give the companies the chance to put their views across,' he adds.

Indeed, Novartis and Pfizer issued statements rebuking Dying for Drugs' producers for refusing them the opportunity to 'engage' with those responsible for the making of the show and counter the allegations made in it.

Despite the big drug companies' protestations that there is no comparison to be drawn between the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, it is open to question whether they are doing enough to communicate the validity of their work.

Ley suggests it comes down to an age-old PR problem: 'The ABPI is doing its best to get the message across, but good news stories are harder to place than bad ones.' He quotes a figure of £9m per day spent by the UK pharma sector on research and development of new treatments, which needs to be recouped through the sale of drugs internationally - precisely the sort of argument in defence of the drugs companies that is rarely aired in public.

It is clear the reputational stock of Big Drugs has yet to sink to the level of Big Tobacco, but a PR challenge lies ahead to arrest the slide in the sector's reputation. The issue for the drugs companies is that PR work alone will be futile, unless the concerns raised about their work are addressed, too.

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