Forging Alliances

Advocacy Partners
Sep 01, 2002

Successful partnerships with third-party organizations such as patient and caregiver advocacy groups, professional associations, and thought leaders are powerful medicine for pharma companies.

When the process works, those relationships provide vital support-both for a company's business objectives and for the advocacy partners' missions and goals.

This article discusses the public relations discipline of ally and advocacy development as an important business tool and explains how, when done right, building effective alliances with patient, caregiver, and professional groups and experts is a win0win proposition.

Partnering with advocacy groups and thought leaders at major research institutions helps to

  • recruit participants for clinical trials
  • speed the development and approval process for new therapies
  • inform healthcare providers, patients, and their caregivers about new and safer options for treating chronic and life-threatening diseases
  • diffuse industry critics by delivering positive messages about the healthcare contributions of pharma companies to legislators, the media, and other key stakeholders
  • influence changes in healthcare policy and regulations to expand patient access to, and coverage for, earlier diagnoses and treatments.

Vocal Power Advocacy groups and thought leaders are critical to pharma companies' success because they are the credible voice of patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers. Effective pharma partnering links company messages with those of influential organizations and individuals when all find common ground. Without such allies, a skeptical journalist may see a company's messages and information as self-serving and describe them as such to their audiences.

Add PR To Partnership
All pharma activities-product launches, clinical trials, CME programs, disease awareness, and patient screening and education initiatives-benefit from having respected third-party advocates as members of the pharma marketing team.

Journalists want to interview credible people such as celebrity spokespersons and patients who can publicly discuss their personal experiences with a disease and its treatment, as well as advocacy experts and physician thought leaders who can report clinical trial results and describe in lay terms why a new drug makes a difference.

Those partnerships are based on mutual trust and respect. Jeffrey Winton, vice-president of global public relations for Pharmacia, talks about its advocacy partners: "Although they work with us, we don't always see eye-to-eye on everything. They are their own people. We don't try to dictate what they say to whom. As a result it's given us greater credibility. Once you start watering down the messages that those groups and experts want to tell, you might as well forget the value of working with them."

An Early Model For years, pharma companies' connections with patient advocacy groups were limited to corporate financial contributions to create goodwill, with no expectation of a measurable return for the company and no real role, as a partner with the donor company, for the advocacy group to play. Most corporations were uncomfortable with the idea of "partnering" with advocacy groups, because they often saw them as activists, unsympathetic to the profit interests of big business.

Of particular concern to pharma companies were the vocal activism and agenda of the AIDS groups. Until the early 1980s, pharma companies created relationships primarily with professional groups representing physicians, and rarely communicated directly with patients.

Finding a fit
The AIDS community-desperate for access to treatment and promising new drugs-effectively amplified their voices and actions to force change. Pharma, healthcare providers, insurers, and government finally responded by including those groups in a continuing dialogue about every aspect of care. They've been at the table ever since.

Soon thereafter, breast cancer groups began to organize and politicize their issues. They modeled their efforts after the AIDS groups to achieve share of voice, disease awareness, research funding, patient education programs, and coverage for diagnostic testing and treatments. At that time, only a few forward-thinking pharma companies recognized the potential return in building true alliances with patient groups. (See PE, "Discovery! Oncology," June 2002 and PE, "HBA's 2002 Woman of the Year Leads Transformation," April 2002.)

That model was again used in the late 1980s by Schering-Plough to create the national Prostate Cancer Awareness Week campaign, supported by S-P's marketing efforts for Eulexin (flutamide), a prostate cancer therapy.

Partners in that program included Cancer Care, the National Cancer Institute, AARP, the American Foundation for Urologic Disease, the Association of Community Cancer Centers, and the National Association of Community Health Centers. At a time when diseases of the male sexual anatomy were not discussed publicly, their common objective was to inform men age 40 and older-and their families-about the importance of annual testing for prostate cancer, one of the most curable cancers when detected early. During the campaign's three-year run, awareness spread. The topic was no longer taboo, and more than 250,000 men received well-publicized free screenings at clinics across the country.

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