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Time for change

Global comms can increase its effectiveness by not treating all markets the same as the US

Clocks showing the time in New York and LondonIn newspaper offices of the past, behind the desk of the Foreign Editor stood a wall of elegant clocks bearing the names Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, Sydney and so forth. Every minute of every day, those slowly moving hands reminded reporters that people across the globe go to bed at different times, wake up at different times and consume their news at different times. Despite the availability of 24 hour global communications, these human behaviours, for most people, have not changed that much.

Strangely, however, global communications departments of international pharmaceutical companies seem unaware that most news outlets still tend to concentrate on breakfast time, that American isn't quite a universal language in Europe and that most people in the world haven't a clue what Eastern Standard Time is, let alone Rocky Mountain Time.

Todd and Scott and Becky and their earnest colleagues in New York or New Jersey, or wherever, seem genuinely baffled, even personally hurt, that issuing a press release on a Sunday night in the UK fails to elicit much media interest, despite the timing being very convenient for Denver.

They seem just as surprised at the reaction when they relay the curt instructions from the director of global communications that the press release — sent the night before the conference presentation or journal publication — be approved locally, and comments from local KOLs be obtained, country specific facts be inserted and the release be issued at 07.00 EST to coincide with US distribution.

I wish I could tell you I am making this up for the sake of a good story, but it is all too depressingly real.

The own goals scored by global communications in terms of failing to win coverage for what should be genuinely interesting news are legion. Additionally, these strategies are repeated endlessly despite clear evidence that they do not work.

Wasting resources
The sheer amount of money wasted by global comms is staggering, let alone the amount of time they plunder from UK comms teams, who could be doing better things to greater effect. The same nonsense goes on and on and on, year in and year out, in some surreal parody of an evidence-based industry.

If pills or vaccines clearly had no efficacy, despite repeated tests, what company in its right mind would continue to thrust them at doctors? Yet international press releases and other farcical global initiatives are repeatedly forced upon journalists, who quite rightly consign them, in bafflement or irritation, straight to the wastepaper bin or the delete button.

I shudder to think at the time and money that have been spent by innumerable global comms teams conducting international surveys of quality of life issues for particular conditions, or the difficulties in accessing new treatments, which point out in lavish detail in the press release that ill people are generally less happy than those who are well and that rich countries, by and large, use more expensive medicines than poor ones. These are not insights that are going to bound on to the front pages of national newspapers or cause gasps of amazement in TV and radio studios, but still they are regularly inflicted on the media.

How many millions of dollars or euros or pounds have been expended in 'educational grants' to international charities to produce patient management booklets saying people with diabetes should control their blood sugar levels and those with heart disease should watch their cholesterol — which local countries are then ordered to win media coverage for?

How many rainforests have been felled to produce 50-page internal media question and answer documents that don't answer any of the questions likely to be asked by real journalists, especially the one about 'why does your drug cost so much more than its rivals when it is exactly the same?'

Wrap a Union Jack around it
I can't tell you the number of global press releases that I (and I suspect every single UK health PR company) have tried to 'wrap a Union Jack around' — that is, find a UK angle — with no help from global, only to discover weeks later that there were British trialists in the study who could have given quotes about the medicine's important potential role in the UK. Instead the global press release treats UK journalists to the maunderings of Professor Obscurity from Nowheresville, Nebraska, who wasn't even one of the trialists.

Worse still are the pious platitudes of the CEO, who is dragged into the closing paragraphs to tell the world what an awful disease his team is fighting when what he clearly means is 'this will be extremely good for share prices.'

That in itself is a huge issue with global releases — who are they aimed at? Are they meant for the general reader or are they for the business pages and the City press? If for the financial press, that is fine and perfectly legitimate — but why pretend that the general media will find them newsworthy?

Press releases are boring
Aside from dubious content and ridiculous timings, the other major factor that scuppers global press releases is the way they are written. They are so boring.

International press releases are indescribably dull, with opening paragraphs hundreds of words long, which drain the will to live by the second line and whose meaning is still not clear by the end of the first page. It is as though global communication teams and their global PR agencies have a kind of reverse alchemy — they start off with gold and turn it into dross.

Some of the releases simply defy comprehension, and the original journal article or conference abstract on which they are based is often easier to understand.

Dealing with local press
At this point you are no doubt thinking: 'If global releases are so dreadful, why don't individual countries write their own?'

When we are allowed to, and allowed the time to do so, we do. But often such efforts are formally banned or made so difficult they might as well be.

Some global comms teams insist only they can conduct dealings with certain British media outlets, not the UK press team, despite the fact global may contact such journalists once a year and the UK press team or PR agency may have known the reporters for many years.

This can, and often does, mean that the Financial Times, for instance, gets an incomprehensible global release while other UK papers get a clear UK version, and the medical correspondent on the Daily Mail gets a helpful phone call to talk her through the material while the pharmaceutical correspondent on the FT is left to his own devices.

The other convention that is becoming more common from global is not to let the local country see the original data, despite being ordered to write a local press release about it. The apparent logic behind this is that highly experienced media professionals, with their jobs on the line, will breach the confidentiality of the material and immediately leak it to a friendly hack or ring their stockbrokers for some casual insider dealing.

The third reason sometimes asserted for treating local staff like mushrooms — keeping them in the dark and feeding them manure — is that the journal will object and pull the paper if it hears a press release is being planned, or the paper will not get published at all if it gets too much conference publicity. These are other ways of saying: 'We don't trust you guys not to screw up.'

All three reasons for secrecy are utterly insulting, but the practice of not trusting country level in-house communication professionals with information, let alone agencies, is increasingly prevalent at a global level.

But it does not have to be this way.

A better way
The first thing that could be changed is to question if global press releases are actually needed. I would contend that, in most cases, they are not. Usually, template information, provided in good time, would allow the creation of far more effective, UK-centred, press releases that would win more coverage.

Time, money and wasted effort could be saved if global would simply acknowledge that individual countries are bound to know their own media better, and that press releases quoting UK doctors, with comments from UK patient groups and filled with UK disease statistics, are going to be of more interest to UK media outlets.

None of this is exactly rocket science. But fear that individual countries cannot be trusted to remain 'on message' means global failure actually seems preferred to local success in winning media coverage.

I know it's not really the fault of Todd and Scott and Becky, who are doing their best with the strange orders they themselves receive. But just occasionally, when ordered to write material aimed at the British media, I do wish they could turn the spellchecker to UK English and turn their watches at least six hours forward.

 

Ingredients needed from global for successful local communications

1. Advance notice that something is planned — at least two months in advance.
2. Draft materials (template press release, or the report, journal article or conference abstract) — four to six weeks in advance.
3. Agreement to speak to trialists, if these are from the UK — four weeks in advance.
4. Agreement that UK KOLs and patient groups can be approached for comment — four weeks in advance.
5. Agreement when the press release will be released. If US time is being used, agreement that the UK release can be sent out a day in advance under embargo, to coincide with US time — two weeks in advance.
6. Agreement which UK news outlets, if any, global feels it owns and which can be contacted by the British team — two weeks in advance.
7. Agreement that messages will be aimed at a general audience, not just a financial one.
8. Agreement, where necessary, that a simpler version can be constructed for the general reader and a more technical one for a medical audience.

 

The Author
Chris Mihill
is the chairman of Clew Communications. He was previously medical correspondent on The Guardian.

To comment on this article, email pm@pmlive.com

17th November 2010

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