Thriving Amid Uncertainty

Relationships Reign
Sep 01, 2002

As healthcare struggles to reinvent itself, a confluence of major societal forces has irrevocably changed both the business world and the healthcare landscape.

Those forces include globalization; market deregulation and privatization of businesses; new conduits of information such as the internet, telecommunications, and media; increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated products; and an unprecedented erosion of trust in corporations and institutions. The changes have also had direct and profound impact on the pharma industry and on the vigor of larger healthcare business, resulting in new communications opportunities and challenges.

This article describes communications techniques that address healthcare market trends and needs. It discusses how those techniques are essential and interrelated because of the many stakeholders that pharma companies must reach and relate to, not just once or twice, but in a continuing, mutually beneficial way.

Relationship Imperative The growing importance of building relationships among influencers results from several significant trends:

  • Changed stakeholder dynamics that have created a three-dimensional sphere of influencers in constant interaction so that public relations professionals can no longer distribute information merely through linear lines of communication. (See "The Relationship Network," page 20.)
  • New standards and expectations for healthcare companies and their brands so they deliver a more rigorous, honest, and socially responsible product.
  • New channels and expectations for information that guides patient loyalty and decisions through access to, and dialogue with, stakeholders. The internet chat room may now pull as much weight with consumers as a product insert-and possibly more.

Above all, an aura of uncertainty hangs over the US economy, and the pharma industry in particular. As soon as the public spotlight falls on a certain area-accounting, management investment practices, the role of directors, or product safety-that area changes not only for the company under scrutiny but often for all companies perceived to share similar attributes. A negative regulatory ruling can, and often does, bring down the entire public pharma sector, not just the stock of the company in-volved. There's no better example of the powerful effect uncertainty can exert over established practices than the new PhRMA Code on Interactions with Healthcare Professionals, which went into effect on July 1, 2002. It affects the way pharma companies handle entertainment, consultants, healthcare practices, and medical education. As a result, companies must find new ways of communicating within the code's ethical boundaries. That will take some trial and error because the rules are still being rewritten.

Companies and brand owners find it increasingly difficult to control the market. Branding has been reborn as a business unto itself and not just a promise made to consumers in the marketing of products. The communication must be reinforced over time through consistent messages. Branding requires that actions and messages directed at stakeholders be uniquely relevant to each subset of each target group, as well as integrated and aligned.

Brand and company success re-quire building and maintaining trust through open, interactive exchange of information. Consumer activism, the increasing focus on social responsibility, a stronger link between brand identification and corporate reputation, and brands that deliver "experiences"-such as allergy medication taken at a baseball game, not just products, are all solid reasons for investing in relationship building among stakeholders.

In the world of pharmaceuticals and healthcare, there are four dominant constituents with which PR personnel must build and maintain relationships.

Prescribers. This group includes doctors, nurse practitioners, and in some parts of the world, pharmacists. Also included in the category are medical trade reporters and editors. In the past, prescribers had the first and last word about a treatment regimen. They were the source of all information and, with few exceptions their wisdom went unquestioned. Today, open communications channels, a more informed and cynical public, and the do-it-yourself nature of information retrieval have toppled that group from its pedestal.

Investors. Individual and institutional investors, analysts and portfolio managers, financial and business trade journalists, business partners, and current and potential employees all require attention from PR professionals. Who'd have guessed that Wall Street analysts' persistent questions about pipeline products' viability might change how a large pharma company prioritizes its research? Or that companies only be judged not only on the basis of their science but also for their ability to maintain a strong balance sheet and make their quarterly numbers-and defend their patents in the courtroom?

The relationship network
Consumers. Patients, their caregivers, and immediate acquaintances such as neighbors and relatives as well as personal health reporters make up the third category. This group is unlimited-virtually every human has played one of those roles at some point in life.

Overseers. This category consists of regulators, thought leaders, formulary directors, and anyone else who has an impact on pricing, market accessibility, and exerting external controls.

The information and communication needs of each group are distinct. PR exists to create and facilitate lines of communication to build relationships among them. Although there have been profound changes in the ways that media spread that communication through talk programming and pop culture, media is not the be-all and end-all of public relations.

PR is not short for press release. Rather it is about creating trust, understanding, and awareness. It's about facilitating communications among internal and external stakeholders and coordinating numerous functions, including corporate communications, finance, science, knowledge, and marketing.

lorem ipsum