Public Relations: Damage Control

Companies must work together to save pharma's deteriorating image.
Feb 01, 2006

Robert Chandler
Many consumers have yet to recognize pharma's greatest gift: its ability to improve and save lives. That's because the public doesn't hear about pharma's strengths and achievements—instead, it hears about skyrocketing drug prices, drug scandals, and concerns over limited access to medications—all of which contribute to pharma's declining reputation. Despite the growing consumer distrust and dislike for the industry, pharma has done little to communicate breakthrough treatments and other innovations that may position the industry in a more favorable light.

Gianfranco Chicco
Now pharma faces an uphill battle to repair its image. It must strive to change public perception as it did during the Clinton administration when

the industry came under attack. As a result of the administration's effort to overhaul federal healthcare delivery, pharma became a frequent and easy political target. But, pharma did not passively accept the criticism—companies actively came together en masse to defend the industry's deep, rich history of innovation in both paid and free media campaigns. Pharma highlighted the positive aspects of the industry and revealed how large research efforts led to a polio cure, how it was addressing a rampant AIDS epidemic, and how drug prices supported research. These efforts worked. Throughout the '90s, many consumers began to see pharma as a powerful force, capable of addressing, and even overcoming, the seemingly intransigent medical issues of the day, such as AIDS, cancer, and chronic diseases.

Time to Collaborate

Pharma had earned a reprieve. Fast forward to present day, and the same concerns about drug access, safety, and affordability are back with a vengeance. Even Billy Tauzin, president and CEO of PhRMA, agreed that companies need to take a more collaborative approach to bettering their image. Earlier this year, he told Pharm Exec (March, 2005), "It's complicated, but if I can summarize it for you, it's to do what I can in collaboration with our member companies to rescue and restore the reputation of what I consider national treasures—companies that produce the medicines that keep us all alive."

Plenty of recent consumer research shows that consumers currently do not trust the industry to deliver unbiased health messages. Their most visible concerns include:
• Safety problems for high-profile drugs
• Market questions about blockbuster drugs in the pipeline
• Pricing for drugs that slow the onset of AIDS
• Questions as to whether physicians are adequately educated before DTC advertising campaigns are launched
• Insurance and Medicare reimbursement for very expensive drugs.

Pharma needs to address these concerns as an industry. Big Pharma has proven that it can deliver state-of-the-art communications initiatives behind dozens of specific, branded products coming to market. But, it must do more to support broader communications initiatives that cut across all diseases and the industry as a whole. Because of economic reasons, many companies simply don't have the marketing dollars to support both kinds of initiatives. Further, with so much riding on how physicians perceive branded products, there is little money left over to explain pharmaceutical innovations and the marketing process to the ultimate end user, the patient.

Address Patients' Concerns

Pharma must realize that patients can also influence prescribing behavior and serve as spokespeople for brands. But first, pharma must help patients to look beyond high drug prices, sensationalized DTC advertising, and drug scandals. Pharma can start to rebuild credibility by developing a thorough, well-organized campaign that cuts across the entire industry—and then deliver it via paid and free media to the consumer.

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