Thursday, July 14, 2005

Transparency: A New Voice for Pharma

The upcoming Pharmaceutical Public Relations & Communications Summit will feature many presentations from pharmaceutical communications and PR specialists who will attempt to offer advice on how to make pharmaceutical crises "go away." That's an explicit goal of at least one workshop and it is the subtext of most of the other presentations.

Here's a partial list of the topics or tactics to be discussed:
  • The impact of drug pricing, drug safety and regulatory violations on public perception: Lessen the knowledge gap
  • Conveying your message to all of industries stakeholders, patients, consumers, providers, Capital Hill and more
  • The impact of foundation work and community partnerships on perception
  • How Pharma Can Best Work With Physician and Celebrity Spokespersons
  • Displaying The Value of Medicine in your Corporate Communications
  • Partnering with Patients to Clearly Demonstrate the True Value of Medicine
  • Examine an award-winning campaign that highlights partnerships one company has formed with philanthropic, government and nongovernmental agencies for more than 100 years
  • Going to the Higher Ground with Medical Societies in Advocacy Development
From this I infer the PR strategy for dealing with the current pharmaceutical crisis can be boiled down to starting with the right message:
  1. Drug prices are not the culprit (there's a "knowledge gap" that has to be neutralized)
  2. Medicines are valuable
  3. The drug industry is noble and donates a lot of money to philanthropic causes
and eliciting the help of the following advocates to bring the message to the public and Congress:
  • Physicians and their medical societies
  • Celebrity spokespeople
  • Patient advocacy groups
The industry's strategy seems to be all about spin and damage control and nothing about transparency or using other, non-traditional approaches.

Sometimes, it seems that the industry merely cranks out PR about being transparent without actually being transparent.

Last year, for example, pharma companies announced initiatives to list all pharma-supported clinical trials on Web sites. Yet a Boston Globe article published in January entitled "Drug firms lagging on openness" states "six months after the drug industry vowed to make its clinical trials more transparent, and three months after launching a common website to give the public 'unprecedented access' to studies both good and bad, drug companies have posted unpublished trial results on the site for just five drugs."

Maybe things have changed since January regarding the situation with clinical trials, but there are signs that pharma companies are still having problems with the transparency thing. PhRMA, for example, seems to have qualms about FDA's plan to post "unvalidated" safety data on it proposed Drug Watch Site (see "Drug Risk Survey Results" published in a recent issue of Pharma Marketing News).

Blog: Information Reformation
The aforementioned conference includes a few "Ocean View Roundtable Sessions" that may be more interesting than the formal presentations. One roudtable will be moderated by my friend Mark Bard, president of Manhattan Research. This roundatble is titled: "Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That's Changing the Pharmaceutical Industry."

The title of the roundtable comes from the book "Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation that's Changing Your World" by Hugh Hewitt.
FROM THE PUBLISHER
From a business standpoint, your organization can benefit from developing a two-pronged approach to blogging by creating offensive and defensive plans. Not only do you need to blog internally to promote ideas and foster better communication among colleagues, but your company also should take advantage of the advertising and publicity benefits of blogging. Put yourself at the front of people's minds, and make sure you stay there. As for a defensive strategy, create a plan for addressing immediately even one negative blog, because in just a click of a mouse it will spread like wildfire, and you'll soon have one hundred negative blog references out there, and then a thousand or more. Blog shows you how to develop both.
I am not sure how ready the pharmaceutical industry is to "take advantage of the advertising and publicity benefits of blogging." From my limited discussions with pharma people, the industry doesn't see any benefits of blogging at all.

However, I suggested what a pharma company PR blog might look like in a previous post to this blog (see "
Patients Come First?").

Pharma PR Needs a New Voice: Employees!
The vast majority of employees, managers, and executives at pharmaceutical companies are very dedicated and honest people that want to do the right thing and implement PR slogans like "Patients come first" in their jobs. But they are almost always muzzled (see, for example, "Peter Rost: Pharma's Black Knight").

Here's what I propose. Instead of fancy, expensive ads or PR campaigns, why don't pharma companies interview a few employees and let us hear directly from them? Better yet, pharma companies should start blogs and have employees contribute. This may give the industry a credible voice to counteract all the outside voices railed against it.

This strategy would take a page from the White House's playbook regarding Karl Rove damage control: have surrogates promulgate your talking points via populist channels. In this case, have pharma employees as spokespeople. I'm not talking about CEOs, but regular employees. Wal Mart ads do this well.

I don't think the public will look upon low level-pharma industry employees (secretaries, bench scientists, etc.) as "shills," whereas other surrogates -- physicians, celebrities, etc. -- may be viewed that way.

There have been a few ads featuring pharmaceutical personnel -- especially researchers. This may be a good model to transition to blogs through which personnel can contribute their thoughts and opinions.

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