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VITA strategy aims to change behaviours and build trust, but will it convince press and public?

morph-in-a-boxRemember Morph, the brown plasticine fellow from Tony Hart's television shows in the 1970s and 1980s? He would go about his business until trouble loomed, often in the form of an irritated presenter, and then promptly disappear down into the desk as a pole. When he re-emerged he might be a different shape, or in a better position to carry on whatever he was doing. This would happen two or three times in a show. What was it all about?

The same question might be asked of the ABPI's recent period of self-assessment. Here comes the tenuous link that makes the illustration work: following an appraisal of its structure, ambition and responsibility, the ABPI has uncovered an urgent need to rethink on shape.

Also, like the presenter's view of Morph (almost his final mention), the ABPI too seems to be frequently in, then out of, favour. It plainly does some interesting and important work on behalf of some very dynamic companies and yet, in some quarters, it is viewed as a touch staid, sometimes latent and possibly even reactionary – 'tea on the lawn' at times when people needed an 'espresso on the double'. In short, it's the establishment and it could benefit from a Sarah Beeny knock-through and revamp.

I do not claim this to be universal opinion, but some apparently feel this way; most don't admit it publicly. So just how much does the ABPI care about what people think about it and the industry that it represents, and how can it change things for the better?

If you're wondering which group of dissatisfied managing directors or marketing executives has furtively bent my ear, the answer might be surprising. First, this criticism wasn't off the record, but patently and refreshingly on it, and the source was ABPI director-general, Dr Richard Barker.

Following a nine-month period of reflection, starting in 2008, the ABPI found itself to be, quoting Dr Barker from a conversation in April 2009, "slowed down by too much process", its action-by-committee representing "an old-fashioned culture" whose aptness for modern-day business is outmoded.

This is an honest and accessible appraisal, and a positive development in itself. The shelves might not creak with accolades for exemplary performance in all quarters, but the association clearly revels in the debate around the security of many members' futures and is seeking to position itself for this challenge.

Some say it is not always luminously proactive either but, if this is true, the first step to betterment is surely an open admission of the problem, or – more to the point – the ambition.

So there will be a new, streamlined structure, new ways of partnering, accelerated work programmes, an embracing of fresh concepts in outreach and, perhaps above all, a brutal clothes-off/lights-on evaluation of behaviour with a view to squeezing the joint working sponge more effectively.

"We want to be a world-class industry association," say those at the top.

History of endeavour
As a healthcare journalist who has observed and reported on the ABPI's activities for nigh on a decade, I'd say it's been smacked once, or even twice, too often with the dreary stick when it comes to communications with the press and, therefore, the public.

At times, the House of Lords is compelled to move with more alacrity. If I had even 50 pence for each time the ABPI announced to journalists a new big idea to improve relations with department of health decision makers, to communicate the benefits of innovative medicines to the public or spotlight the value of pharma companies to the Treasury etc, well I might only have enough for a pizza, but the point is that's all I would have – limited offerings in the way of tangible, convincing evidence that something is going to happen; a better way forward.

There's been some PR puff and 'watch what you print' counsel, but this is par for the course given the protectionist principles of communications/media relations personnel across all sectors now. As a writer with a duty to spotlight developments – as anyone, in fact, who's interested in ideas and progress – I want to know what is actually going to happen to make a positive, material, sustainable difference to the futures, fortunes and reputations of UK pharma companies.

And now there's an answer to this question. The ABPI has just launched VITA, whose Latin acronym denotes its forward-looking Value–Innovation–Trust–Access initiative. The best thing about it is that it's not just an initiative; it is not a short-term project supporting a few media headlines with a fuzzy deadline and objectives to be usurped by the next re-invention, or big idea on communication.

More than this, VITA represents a change of culture at the core of the ABPI, one that will need to pervade its member organisations if it is to deliver the desired outcomes.

The ABPI wants to understand how stakeholders think about the pharma industry and then enhance the way it and its members behave to improve that view. Why is this important? Because in this environment of cost-cuts, power of public opinion and media savagery, trust and credibility are everything in business partnerships.

Skewed perceptions
The first imperative in adapting behaviour is to understand how you're already perceived. To this end, the association is undertaking a raft of measures, led by ABPI Scotland director, Andy Powrie-Smith, to ascertain what different groups – including "young people", intriguingly – want from the industry.

So what do people think? Can it be as bad as the cliché: pharma – the clever drug-selling investment bank with profit schemes as clear as quantum physics, players that corner the market with the voracity of emaciated wolves and whose representative association woos the government like a lively weasel up a starched trouser leg?

Of course this is first-class hyperbole, unmistakably, but I doubt some of the papers would take much umbridge with it, and they've got influence. To whatever extent this perception prevails, what are the grassroots of such conjecture? The papers? The Guardian? Agenda-driven lay journalists on raggedy fish-and-chip-wrapper titles designed to sell on shock and surprise? Has the government played a role in driving this – remember the Health Select Committee investigation? Or is it ignorance and indifference?

To what extent does the public give that much of a rat's arm about any industry? Sure, people in Britain want an opinion on things - anything. Something to fight for, or against; acts by which to define themselves. We suffer from a faint identity, so when something flares up in the media, it's a chance to get on our high horse; or someone else's. The media is not necessarily at fault for the result, but can be a key lever in the mechanism, like the pedals on a bike, or the ratchet on a guillotine drawstring, for instance.

People care passionately about their own, and their families', wellbeing, and equitable, timely access to the best care and medicines. How much money drug manufacturers make in the process, how they educate physicians on the use of their products and who gets what for a pension is surely a matter of superficial conjecture in a culture of open begrudgery?

Big industry has always had to battle challenges like these. Look at Tesco – £3bn in profits, the swines! But why should anyone hold the company in disdain for its success? Tesco stocks a broad array of affordable products which are accessible without undue expense or trial.

So how will the ABPI achieve the same?
Under the VITA banner, work programmes will drive new attitudes to partnership with the NHS, and in summing up each priority the ABPI has the following to say:

On value – "Our vision is to establish the UK as one of the best environments in the world for both valuing the medicines and innovations the industry delivers and for rewarding that value when it is delivered. Of course, implicit in that statement is an assumption that, in fact, we do not do that at the moment."

On innovation – "All sizeable companies are global now, making global decisions. Why should our members keep large R&D organisations in the UK? Unless we can transform productivity of doing everything from early-stage discovery through to late-stage clinical trials in the UK, there is no reason."

"The forces at work here – relatively high costs and slow processes – will be defeated by lower costs, faster processes and massive markets in Asia, and clinical trials in Eastern Europe. Just in time we – and the government and NHS – are waking up to the fact that we've got to do something."

On trust – "This whole work stream is absolutely not a PR exercise or just celebrating the good things we do. We are aiming to create a change of current practice with a whole different set of behaviours that redefine our relationship with wider society, based on transparency, openness, honesty, integrity and trust."

On access – "We could be the most trusted and innovative industry in the UK, and reshape the attitudes to the value of medicines. But that doesn't mean patients will get the right medicines at the right time. So it is crucially important that this work actually makes a difference to patients."

In theory, VITA could be the ABPI's equivalent of one of Morph's finest reformations, pleasing the public and media in the process, but it might depend on the quality of implementation. After all, Morph was only the figurehead for those who actually did all the work; without them he could only really stand still.

The Author
Rob Skelding is a freelance writer for the pharmaceutical industry
To comment on this article, email pm@pmlive.com

4th June 2009

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