Healthcare Public Relations: In The Driver's Seat?

Mar 01, 2002


Seated (l to r): Pat Pesanello, PwC Consulting; Nancy Turett, Edelman Health Practices; Kathryn Metcalfe, Cohn & Wolfe Healthcare; Josh Weinstein, jwEinstein Strategic Messaging. Standing (l to r): Teri Cox, Cox Communications Partners; Ame Wadler, Burson-Marsteller; Kathy Bloomgarden, Ruder Finn; Hope Krakoff, eMaven; Max Gomez, WNBC-TV New York; Nancy Rueth, Noonan/Russo PResence Euro RSCG; Michael Durand, Porter Novelli; Wayne Koberstein, Pharmaceutical Executive; Heidi Yeranossian, Madison on Main Communications; Stephanie Marchesi, Manning, Selvage amp; Lee; Kym White, Ogilvy PR Worldwide; Marilyn Castaldi, Fleishman Hillard; Susan Noonan, Noonan/Russo PResence Euro RSCG. On stairs (left to right): Carolyn Glynn, Roche; Gianfranco Chicco, Chandler Chicco Agency; Richard Chamberlain, Chamberlain Communications Group; David Catlett, Ketchum; Kathy Cripps, Council of PR Firms; Laura Schoen, Weber Shandwick Worldwide; Ilyssa Levins, GCI Group.
From flacks and hacks to spin doctors and drug pushers, the cliche used to describe healthcare public relations professionals have fostered an image of PR that is, if not downright sleazy, at least suspect. Despite its foundations in science and public welfare, healthcare PR has been tagged as "advertising's stepchild" and routinely takes a back seat whenever pharma company clients make budget decisions.

But from the vantage point of those attending Pharmaceutical Executive's roundtable in New York, healthcare PR may not only have laid the strategic groundwork for many of today's most familiar pharma marketing tactics, it may also soon be recognized as the key driver of pharma marketing.

Last December, PE brought together more than two dozen PR healthcare leaders, setting the stage for select agency executives to tackle the issues that have kept PR in the shadows of its more extroverted marketing cousins-DTC advertising and professional promotions. All participants have one thing in common: They agree that their time behind the scenes is over and that it is up to them to raise awareness of public relations' value to pharma-its impact on sales, corporate image, and the industry's reputation.

When Wayne Koberstein, PE's editor-in-chief and roundtable moderator, introduces the day's theme-"Should public relations be the driver, navigator, or passenger of pharma marketing?"-Nancy Turett, president and global director of Edelman Health, asks, "Are those our only choices?"


Wayne Koberstein
Unlike their colleagues in advertising, PR professionals generally do not separate account management from creative work. Effective agency staffers must serve as strategic consultants, tactical engineers, scientific writers, account managers, graphic designers, consensus builders, patient recruiters, media informants, and public health advocates. In fact, PR agencies operate at every level of their pharma clients' business, primarily because they broker relationships between companies and a long list of important audiences: healthcare providers, managed care organizations, insurers, government agencies, regulators, patient and consumer groups, and the media.

The Future of Pharma As the pharma industry accelerates its integration of R&D and marketing functions, many employees find themselves forced to acquire the skills for both areas. According to the roundtable's keynote speaker, Patricia Pesanello, PwC Consulting's director of global pharmaceutical practice, PR professionals have multitasked all along and will continue to drive integration of those and other functions. Despite that prediction, she says companies still have a hard time grasping PR's value: "Public relations is starting to track and pinpoint what its contributions are, and they correlate with an indicator of success-usually some form of market share or sales." Pesanello cites research showing healthcare public relations' traditional functions and specialty areas that support pharma's overall marketing and sales goals. Those include:

  • informing audiences of, and managing expectations for, new products coming to market
  • providing educational materials that teach physicians and patients to use new products safely and effectively
  • supporting marketing and sales' special events and promotional activities
  • handling communications among companies and government and financial audiences
  • managing employee relations within companies
  • anticipating and preparing crisis communications plans.


Forces Shaping Pharma's Future
According to Pesanello, overall increases in pharma marketing expenditures have fueled the growth of new forms of consumer outreach, with advertising and traditional marketing companies "crossing into the domain of public relations." As investments in DTC advertising and sales forces increased, the distinction blurred between the roles of consumer outreach-traditionally an advertising function-and public education, a goal of PR.

"Those roles are complementary," she says. "In the last few years, as the industry has learned how to manage direct-to-consumer advertising and promotions, it has not only become more skilled, but it has also recognized the role of public relations."


Patricia Pesanello; PWC Consulting
Pesanello cites PwC research, conducted during the DTC ad explosion of the mid-1990s, examining pharma companies' organization and management of DTC activities. PwC found two models: a decentralized one in which product teams specialized in direct-to-consumer marketing and a centralized one in which companies relied on a "center of expertise" in consumer outreach.

She says, "In at least one company, when it was time to do DTC, they turned to their in-house public relations, asking, 'How do we reach out to the public and the patient-the consumer? You, within the company, have the greatest expertise for reaching that segment.' And what evolved was a centralized model." (See "Forces Shaping Pharma's Future.")

Although the decentralized model still dominates, Pesanello claims that pharma companies have begun to recognize the value of a center of excellence and that some of the skills involved in consumer outreach "require coordination or centralization across product teams. In 1998??1999, it really didn't matter what mode was used. What mattered was how well you could operate, how well you could bring perspectives together to build and execute the plans."

But the proliferation of e-business brought interactivity and thus a better understanding of the many audiences relevant to pharma. That made relationship marketing-two-way communications with those audiences and various market segments-more important. Pesanello cites the Hispanic community as a good example of a market segment that benefited from tactics that were more closely related to PR than traditional product marketing. She attributes that to the globalization of DTC advertising and product promotion.

Pesanello also notes that companies' sharpened focus on measurability and ROI is affecting the entire marketing mix, including DTC advertising, professional sales forces, and public relations-although PR's biggest problem has been to