Public Relating

November 1, 2002
Wayne Koberstein
Wayne Koberstein

Wayne Koberstein, a 25-year veteran of the publishing industry, is editor-in-chief of Pharmaceutical Executive magazine. In 14 years as PE's Editor, he has overseen the emergence of the magazine as the leading business and marketing publication for the global pharma industry. He has interviewed and profiled more than 150 top executives in pharmaceutical companies, as well as major regulatory and healthcare leaders, around the world. Wayne has also directed the launch of numerous supplements and other ancillary business for the publication.

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PR is more than free ink. It is even more than good free ink.

PR is more than free ink. It is even more than good free ink.

Having two editors with a public-relations background on Pharm Exec has boosted the height and depth of our in-house PR awareness. PR gives the magazine a new lens for viewing the industry that we cover and serve. It blends well with the evolution of marketing inside pharma companies, because it begins with the assumption that peoples' perceptions constitute a major portion of market reality.

Sales deals in fantasy-or, to be fair, in perception leading to a purchasing decision. PR and marketing deal first in reality, the hard stuff of customer and constituency relationships over time; then, with influencing perceptions in that reality.

When you wish to earn the greatest returns from long-term relationships, rather than press for the quick close, gathering information becomes at least as important as disseminating it. So, if you want to improve your relations with the public, start with your eyes and ears. Work on your understanding before composing your message.

Companies have just begun to employ public relations more prominently to support corporate and product branding. Thus, they have a chance to avoid bad PR habits and create good ones. Effective PR places listening before speaking-learning before capturing ink. It's okay to preach to the choir, as long as you realize the choir is tiny compared to the congregation.

Active listening makes excellent sense at all levels of pharma's public involvement, but it still begs for widespread use. Most companies appear afraid of the possible consequences. One especially fearful consequence might be the need to listen even to one's critics.

When you open yourself up to listening to the public, you must be prepared to hear things you don't like. How should a company and its people process such information? Coldly, but compassionately, like everyone's dream therapist-or perhaps like one of the company's own scientists, with constructive objectivity toward the data.

Politics provides a useful lesson here. Conventional industry wisdom holds that the only way to silence critics is to defeat them soundly in some ultimate public debate. So, PhRMA spends millions funding friendly politicians and "grass-roots" advocates with a conservative, pro-industry agenda. It buys expensive air time "telling the industry's story" with emotional appeals about research and innovation. But it shows little evidence of trying to understand the essential interests of people who don't always see the world from the industry's point of view. Thus political victories ring hollow to the vast population pharma needs to convert.

Public opposition to the industry will not disappear with a Republican majority in the US Congress, nor with a conservative government anywhere. Industry's union with, not victory over, its critics among major constituencies offers its only route to a better public image. That demands a sweeping cultural change-yes, ultimately in society at large, but foremost, internally among the industry's movers and shakers.

It's time that pharma marketing and PR professionals unite to help create new perceptions outside the industry, based primarily on a new reality inside. In parallel, industry insiders from top to bottom on the corporate ladder must become PR-wise in the best sense-good listeners, even to the harshest words from the public outsiders.