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Challenging preconceptions

The ABPI's head of media Lisa Potter on moving from NHS to industry
Challenging preconceptions

In September 2013, I started working for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) as head of media after four and a half years working in a similar communications role for the NHS. I remember when I first started working for the NHS, everyone – both communication and non-communication professionals - had an opinion about the communication challenges I would face. After all, the NHS is a national treasure, which we interact with in our day-to-day lives, and, in turn, everyone has a view on it.

When it comes to the pharma industry, the same rules applied in the sense that everyone had an opinion of what I would be facing, but for different reasons. Unlike the NHS, people don't feel they know the pharma industry. They have a perception about it but it's not based on their own experiences and can sometimes be far removed from reality. 

This is very much in line with my own experience. Before taking on my role in the pharma industry, I imagined the industry operating on a 'need to know' basis and that everything would be done behind closed doors. Coming from the NHS, where every board paper is in the public domain and where key meetings are web-streamed for transparency purposes; I was expecting a culture shock. I am pleased to say the perception was far off the reality.

There are, of course, areas that are highly confidential - it is after all an industry operating in a commercial environment; but on the whole, my first impressions are of an industry that is working hard to be more transparent and is continually striving to improve its reputation.

The pharma industry undoubtedly falls foul of myths. A recent YouGov report Public Opinion and the Evolving State looked into British attitudes to the pharma industry and found definite pockets of scepticism from the public of the industry's motives, and concern that its goals are misaligned with the public need. However, it also found that the reputation of the industry in Britain is generally positive among the public and enjoys relatively good levels of favourability. 

Perhaps most interesting is that, despite this, the pharmaceutical industry is not a sector that the British public claims to know much about, with just 9 per cent of the public saying that they are familiar with it. 

A possible reason for this is that the pharma industry does not experience the same direct level of engagement with patients as you see in the NHS, making patients feel removed from its work.

It is important to note here that the pharma industry is self-regulated by a Code of Practice, nevertheless it would be extremely refreshing to see the industry conducting mainstream conversations with patients and the public outside the patient group/forum setting but within the boundaries of the Code. This would allow the industry to address outdated impressions and present its value. 

Social media - arguably the most public forum available to communications professionals - is a powerful tool when it comes to real life conversations and interactions and can be an invaluable feedback and insight mechanism. Mainstream conversations among patients are commonplace and the NHS is just starting to get to grips with the flow of the data to then gather and disseminate feedback.

There are also examples of this sort of engagement in the pharma industry.  And the digital communications guidance developed by the Industry's Code of Practice administrator, the PMCPA, is a good example of companies being supported to explore the possibilities open to them.

The ABPI is currently developing plans for a communications campaign, working with its members, to engage with stakeholders and clearly articulate the value of industry. In my new role, I am looking forward to continuing the efforts of proactive engagement, embracing channels and sourcing opportunities to engage with patients, the public and stakeholders so that future perceptions of the industry are only ever based on reality.

Article by
Lisa Potter

head of media at the ABPI

22nd January 2014

From: Sales, Marketing

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