The pharma industry is under siege in the news media. From big stories like the COX-2 withdrawals of Vioxx (rofecoxib) and Bextra (valdecoxib), to the editorial outcry over drug prices, access, and importation from Canada, companies face a blitz of critical stories. In the past, when public relations crises arose, companies often tried to ignore unfavorable press coverage and wait for it to go away.
A new Pharma NewsFlow survey of 1,000 consumers and 350 professionals, conducted by Roper Public Affairs and NOP World Health, suggests that companies' ostrich strategy will no longer work. Four out of five consumers say that stories in the press are causing them to feel less favorably toward pharmaceutical companies. Seven in 10 say they worry about the safety of "all prescription medications," even those not mentioned recently as having special risks. And nearly two-thirds say they have reduced their reliance on prescription drugs.
Damaging stories hit the pharma industry harder than other industries because pharma companies always have been nearly invisible to consumers. When some industries take a hit in the papers —consider major league sports or the automobile industry—they draw on a strong corporate reputation built up over many decades to weather the storm. Few pharma companies have such reputation reserves. (Johnson & Johnson, which is widely known and admired, is a rare exception.) In the worst case scenario, a consumer's primary source of information about companies in crisis may be the very news stories or editorials that undermine their reputations.
Physicians Bridge the Gap Consumers never may have heard of most manufacturers, but they do know and trust their doctors. In fact, as bad news about the pharma industry proliferates, consumers say they rely more than ever on doctors' advice about drug safety, turning to them to help interpret negative news reports. However, the industry rarely exploits the role professionals play in shaping its public image. Instead, too many companies see doctors only as distribution channels.
Marketers can use doctors as lynchpins of a new strategy to regain consumer confidence. Physicians know the pharma industry and, to a greater extent than consumers, they are open to hearing the industry's side of a story. In fact, despite concerns over recent negative news, physicians remain the industry's staunchest allies. Most believe the industry is generally reliable, and that the media overstate problems of drug safety. More than 85 percent believe the benefits of drugs outweigh the risks.
Unfortunately, the industry is not preparing doctors to respond well to patient questions and fears. Many physicians are nearly as alarmed as consumers about what they see in the news. Four in 10 doctors say recent news has made them feel less favorably toward the industry, while only three percent say it has made them feel more favorably. Six in 10 say they worry about the safety of all prescription medications, and four in 10 want to see an overhaul of the industry. Physicians express particularly low levels of confidence in the safety of drugs in the depression and pain/arthritis categories—the two categories most cited in the press.
The industry cannot afford to sit idle. Whenever a physician's confidence in a drug or company is shaken, it can trigger a chain reaction among his or her patient population.
Physicians as Ambassadors
Smart companies must create a role for physicians as ambassadors who can raise patient confidence in drugs and the pharma industry as a whole.
Hear it first To hang onto physicians as allies, companies must address doctors' personal concerns about the industry. Physicians need to hear about bad news, such as prescription recalls, from the individual companies involved before they see the story in the media. If pharma companies want to leverage physicians' privileged relationship with consumers, they must help them stay a step ahead of patient questions.