Healthcare Public Relations: In The Driver's Seat? - Pharmaceutical Executive

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Healthcare Public Relations: In The Driver's Seat?


Pharmaceutical Executive


quantitatively measure and prove its value. Consequently, PR agencies are exploring new metrics to replace the old standards-audience impressions and clip books. (See "Client's View," page 58.)

She concludes that PR professionals already use the skills required to be successful, especially those who:

  • excel in conducting and coordinating launches
  • manage the complexity of delivering messages to multiple audiences
  • create "customer" interaction value through relationship marketing
  • achieve operational excellence by
  • integrating processes and deploying enabling technologies
  • build public responsiveness and leadership.


The Holmes Report
It's About Trust Public relations' traditional function has been to create positive images of individual companies and their products-and protect their reputations. Now, says the moderator, because of public scrutiny and suspicion related to product pricing and perceived corporate greed, it must position the entire industry and its value to society. For many veteran professionals at the table, the roar of public debate has hampered their and their clients' abilities to communicate positive news or images. (See "The Holmes Report.")

"Isn't the onus as much on the industry as it is on us as communicators to manage those perceptions?" queries Turett. "People ask, 'How dare you profit from my illness?' They resent the industry partly because it's associated with the most difficult times in their lives. It's about life and death, and the onus is on us to explain the industry's value. So why is public relations a dirty word? Maybe because our outreach programs to explain pharma companies' value aren't extensive or consumer-directed enough."


Nancy Turett
Turett asserts that PR agencies have long directed their communications to consumers but that they haven't had a big enough share of pharma's budget to be effective. Some of pharma's attempts to address pricing and other heavily debated issues failed, not because they were poorly done but because they were poorly received, says Kathryn Metcalfe, executive vice-president and managing director for Cohn & Wolfe Healthcare. She says, "Both programs-the GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis discount cards-were described pretty widely in the media as public relations ploys. So the public didn't even accept them for what they really were, and they're central to the value of the industry."

Marilyn Castaldi, senior partner, senior vice-president, and healthcare practice director for Fleishman-Hillard, adds, "There are many dichotomous messages out there. On the one hand, there are drug discount cards and the


Marilyn Castald
effort to give medicines away. At the same time, there's the patent issue and pharma's efforts to affect whether generics of their leading brands come to market. Pharma companies are giving discounts because they know that Medicare will eventually get a pharmaceutical benefit. It probably would have already if September 11th hadn't happened."


Kathy Bloomgarden
Kathy Bloomgarden, president and CEO of Ruder-Finn, offers a different perspective on the issue of public trust. "I don't think pricing is a public policy issue," she says. "I think it's fundamental to the industry's reputation. That's why Business Week covered pricing. It's unprecedented, the amount of attention it's gotten. And the debates, whether over Bayer or Cipro, are all centered heavily around pricing. The recent GSK and Novartis discount cards are real actions that will give something back. Pharma recognizes that it, together with the government, will have to take concrete steps on the access-to-medicines issue. In many instances innovative high-priced medicines are accepted because they generate some cost-savings. But fundamental trust must be established, and that is deeply intertwined with the issue of pricing, which is at the heart of the industry's reputation."

Runaway Publicity Except for Enron, no other company in recent times has had its reputation on the line as much, and as publicly, as Bayer.


Nancy Rueth
In fact, before September 11, the word "Cipro" (ciprofloxacin) was used mainly in private discussions about urinary tract infections. After September 11th, it was a household word in the United States and elsewhere around the world. The question of its availability thrust Bayer into the fast lane of controversy while the rest of the industry-including makers of other antibiotics used to treat anthrax-idled in neutral. Today, the news media, government officials, patient advocates, physician groups, pharma companies, and their consultants are still debating why that happened.

At PE's roundtable, however, fingers point to a failure by all parties to handle the situation properly. Roundtable participants say they all should have shifted into high gear to communicate the availability of antibiotics such as Vibramycin and penicillin to quell the anxieties of a panicky nation.

Roche spokesperson, Carolyn Glynn, vice-president of public affairs, uses the Cipro case to illustrate PR professionals' responsibility to anticipate and prepare for the reactions of multiple audiences-including the media, patients, physicians, and government-to breaking news and conflicts. As to how well that particular case was handled, the jury's still out.

Max Gomez, PhD, a medical correspondent and health and science editor for NBC's New York affiliate, says, "For Bayer, Cipro was probably a public relations disaster. I disagree, by the way, that it was a good idea to break the drug's patent simply because people wanted to use it as an anti-anxiety medication. If there were a real need for it, the argument would be different. But the argument here is that the perceived need for a medication was so great that the government wanted to, or was seriously proposing to, violate a patent. Bayer and its public relations people should have anticipa- ted the situation."

Though they reach no consensus on the best way to handle messages about the availability of public health treatment, participants agree that in the Cipro case, the public's negative attitudes toward the industry added to the anxiety that pharma companies would leave them defenseless against a bioterrorist


David Catlett
attack. David Catlett, global healthcare director for Ketchum, says, "There's a public perception that pharma companies should behave like government institutions and public trusts, which they're not. The question is ultimately, 'At what point do people recognize pharma companies for what they are-businesses with a certain responsibility but also businesses like any others? As in all other industries, there's a sales function and a marketing function, but you have to be careful how you communicate that."

Referring to the Cipro case, Catlett adds, "While people were saying, 'Where was Bayer?' the question is, 'Why wasn't the government saying there are other antibiotics options?' That didn't come out until well after Bayer was taking heat. The government fumbled on both the federal and local levels. They gave out the wrong information. The whole Cipro patent issue would not have been as big a deal if people realized there were other sources of treatment for the threat."

"The pharmaceutical industry has a black eye, yet we're spending so much more than the government spends on R&D," says Heidi Yeranossian, president and founder of Madison on Main Communications. "New drugs wouldn't be available otherwise."


Gianfranco Chicco
"We get very frustrated when there's an image problem," says Gianfranco Chicco, co-founder of the Chandler Chicco Agency, which counts Bayer as a key client. "The first thing Bayer did with Cipro was to advertise it. A lot of companies' first move is to put the word out through paid media. And as we know, that is not the most credible way of fixing a reputation."

Chicco may be right, and so may the others who voiced their opinions. But data from omnibus telephone surveys conducted by Roper and Opinion Research Corporation for Bayer in October and November of 2001 showed that the company's reputation was intact. In fact, 81 percent of 1,000 Americans surveyed agreed that Bayer did a good deed by selling Cipro at a 50 percent discount to the US government. More than half (58 percent) agreed that Bayer was doing enough to support the United States in the fight against bioterrorism.

Other results showed the public's appreciation for the situation's complexity. Fifty-nine percent thought the government acted correctly by honoring Bayer's patent for Cipro; 35 percent believed the government was right in threatening to break it. (See "Bayer Responds," chart)

Healthcare Public Relations continues with link to page 4

Page 3 is related issue, "Clients View"


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