Public Relations: The Future is East - Pharmaceutical Executive


Public Relations: The Future is East
PR will pave the path to consumer demand in India and China.

Pharmaceutical Executive

PR Into Practice The Western pharma industry has been relatively slow to realize the potential in the East. However, there have been inroads, particularly in research and clinical trial development. India is literally becoming a research laboratory. "Pharma multinationals are increasingly seeing a big opportunity in conducting clinical research in the country, with its large and diverse patient pool and low per-patient trial cost," notes Rob Dhoble, president of Omnicom's Diversified Agency Services Healthcare group.

GlaxoSmithKline will shift 30 percent of its clinical research to India and other countries where trials can be conducted less expensively than in Europe and the United States, according to the August 2004 issue of Biocentury.

As those markets evolve, pharma companies will use PR to map out ways to reach audiences with segmented health messages, develop strategies to communicate with patients and caregivers about disease conditions and benefits of therapies, and enhance or protect companies' reputations. PR professionals will overcome communications challenges by following these practices:

Understand consumers. While advertising agencies have been using anthropology—the study of how people interact with one another and their environment—for years in the development of ad strategies, it is relatively new in PR, where it can be a powerful tool. "Information anthropology" can help ascertain how people obtain and evaluate information and how they determine the credibility of messages. Traditional Western communications channels—newspapers, radio, and television—may not be the best vehicles for disease information. On the other hand, internet penetration in the middle class, particularly in India, is very high.

Third-party endorsement. Patient organizations, which play a large part in most Western pharma PR initiatives, are barely in their infancy in China and India. PR experts should help nurture those organizations to ensure they survive and prosper, so they, in turn, can increase awareness and drive consumer demand.

Teach appropriate use. As in Western markets, education about proper use of medication is vital to successful consumer marketing. The challenge in emerging economies is that prescribing and use patterns may be very different. For instance, China relies heavily on anti-infective products—they constitute 33 percent of the drug market versus an average of just 10.3 percent of other markets, according to PharmaHandbook: A Guide to the International Pharmaceutical Industry (2003). Clearly, education on antibiotic use, dosing, and side effects is important there. PR may also play an equally important role as physician-patient communications in sustaining a medicine information campaign.

Create trust. Convincing consumers of the value of Western pharma companies will be a challenge, but one most appropriate to PR. There are 6,000 domestic pharma companies in China, both large and small, and the market for traditional Chinese medicine is enormous (24 percent of the medicinal product market). Its status was legitimized in 1999 when the Chinese Medicine Ordinance act was passed. In the minds of many, this puts it on an equal footing with Western pharmaceuticals.

How can GSK or Pfizer cut through the domestic clutter and establish respect and trust among consumers and healthcare professionals? Without a doubt, PR will be part of the solution by working with the media, local labor organizations, and others to convince those customers about the value of pharma brands. PR will play an equally important role in dissuading consumers from using pirated or counterfeit medications, a chronic problem in developing markets.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is here at home. The incubators of PR professionals—universities, agencies, and companies—must train their personnel for international careers. Companies need to study how people in different cultures perceive risk and benefit and how they can effectively and ethically be influenced. It's a tall order, but essential in a global economy.

Michael Durand is director of the global healthcare practice at Porter Novelli. He can be reached at


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