Public Relations: Communications Delivery Chain

To regain consumers' trust, pharma must better communicate its mission, goals, and policies.
Sep 30, 2005
By Pharmaceutical Executive


Nancy Turett
Ot has been a rough year for the pharma/consumer relationship. After witnessing multiple product recalls over drug safety, soaring drug prices, and iffy marketing practices, consumer mistrust is at an all-time high. While rebuilding this trust is no small challenge, Nancy Turett, president of Edelman Health, believes that pharma's image can be made over with increased and better-targeted communication. In order to achieve this, she says, pharma companies must increase consumer outreach, invest in educational programs, pioneer new health initiatives, and make a greater effort to dispel the myths that are tarnishing its reputation.

Pharm Exec: What drives the disconnect between the pharma industry's intentions and the public's perception of them?

The pharmaceutical industry is such a large, complex, and highly regulated industry that the public feels it has a particular right to have an opinion about it. The public holds higher expectations for pharma than it does for other industries because health plays a very intimate role in people's lives. Furthermore, good health is a prerequisite for being able to participate in most of what life offers. So the pharmaceutical industry is in a particularly difficult position de facto. And its intentions—which ultimately are to improve and save lives—often go misunderstood.

What are consumers' biggest misperceptions of the pharma industry?

There is a confusion about drug pricing. The public believes that pharma companies are solely responsible for high drug prices. Because the products are called pharmaceuticals and the companies are called pharmaceutical companies, there's a brand association. Clearly, healthcare is becoming a larger share of society's costs, but that has more to do with innovations and advances in technology than with the pricing of pharmaceutical products. But the public doesn't get this kind of explanation, so it's understandable that the public is going to criticize pricing.

So, how can this reality be translated to the public?

We can't perpetuate a myth like, "It's up to companies and their medicines to save us." If we let the public believe this, we will just continue to disappoint them, because it is impossible for any company or any industry to take full responsibility for the health and well-being of individuals. There are too many things that factor into a person's health status that have nothing to do with the companies or their products. Those involved in the pharmaceutical industry should appreciate the emotions that surround healthcare, and understand the importance of enabling people to take back some of the responsibility for their own health. If we're going to have a reasonable match between their expectations of us and what we can deliver, then we must encourage them to be stewards of their own health.

How can pharma companies empower consumers to do this?

The more the public understands about how pharmaceutical companies operate—how medicines are researched, developed, brought to market, marketed, and how they go through the healthcare delivery chain to the mouths of patients—the more they will understand the responsibility that everybody, including themselves, shares. Pharmaceutical companies, in general, are doing a better job of communicating what they're about and how their medicines and prices come to be. However, there are still perceptual needs. If there's a shared accountability on the delivery chain for setting prices or determining policies, then all of the partners in the chain should be participating in the education.