The Communications Convergence

Jan 01, 2009
By Pharmaceutical Executive


Jim Weiss
This fall, Dendreon Corp. stood at a crossroads. The company was announcing key interim data on its lead product, Provenge, after more than a year's worth of speculation about the trial results that had whipsawed investors. The results had to be treated with great care.


Jennifer Gottlieb
The company created a communications process to ensure maximum transparency. They issued a clear, concise press release; hosted an exhaustive conference call; talked with dozens of investors, reporters, advocates, and third parties; and ensured that this critical news was placed in proper context and reported with maximum accuracy. This sort of exercise is not atypical for thousands of biotech companies for which every news event is a potential make-or-break moment.

Now, pharmaceutical companies have begun adopting the scrappy strategies of companies like Dendreon, and this new thinking has made pharmas more nimble than ever before. But to truly leverage the lessons of biotechnology, communications approaches must undergo a similar transformation. There are three elements of communications that biotech has always lived with, which are now central to the survival of any biopharma company: transparency, speed, and focus. Here's how to make each one work for your company.

Transparency Talks

Small, publicly traded biotechnology companies have nowhere to hide. For a company with just a handful of compounds and no revenue, nearly every facet of drug development is significant. Media and investors learn about every scrap of data, every trial, and every compound in the pipeline.

That level of disclosure ensures remarkable transparency—there are no skeletons in the closet. And while such in-depth knowledge doesn't eliminate surprises (drug development is a risky business no matter the size of the company), it means that reputations are built on data, not rumors.


Pharma-as-Biotech: Walking the Walk
How do you put transparency to work? Push your company to follow the lead of companies such as Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline, which detail early-stage programs during analyst days. Such programs used to be shrouded in secrecy due to competition concerns; a better understanding of the pipeline far outweighs the risk of revealing too much. Indeed, if press and investors understand the company better, coverage will be more accurate and investment more robust. Pharma companies need to begin adopting the biotech practice of highlighting specific elements of their pipelines at medical conferences; a once-a-year update is no longer sufficient.

Disclosure builds trust with key stakeholders, and it leads to a better understanding of the company. It is not coincidental that the companies that are most public about their research are the ones most likely to receive positive media attention.

The Need for Speed

We live in a 24-hour news cycle, where news breaks in a number of media, including newspapers, television, and online sources. The news cycle that drove coverage of the Vytorin trial this year, for instance, was driven not by front-page stories in The New York Times, but by a constant stream of real-time updates to the Forbes Web site.

And it's not just the media driving this need for speed. An unexpected warning from the FDA can ping from person to person at the speed of email, requiring response times that are measured in minutes, not hours. To thrive in such an environment, issues management must move at warp speed.

In biotech, a single negative event or a single plausible rumor can destroy huge chunks of market value and imperil life-saving. Take the case of Biogen Idec, which earlier this year confronted concerns that a key multiple sclerosis drug had been tied to a rare and deadly brain infection. To get out ahead of the story, the company disclosed the problem and immediately began working to put the news in context.

But nothing stops the spin cycle like a call from the CEO, and this PR tactic is now being used by leaders of even the largest companies; GSK CEO Andrew Witty spoke directly to the media in October to announce its plan to cap payments to doctors and disclose all payments to physicians. Not surprisingly, the media gave the announcement—which could have been lost during a busy week of earnings reports and financial crisis coverage—a great deal of attention.

This is not to say that a C-level executive should be pushed into managing issues on a day-to-day basis. But adapting to this new reality does require an acknowledgement of the central role that media and investor relations should play when alarm bells are ringing. In a situation where minutes count, the fewer layers between a company's executives and the public, the better.