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The roaring ‘20s and Generation Z

How a new generation will shape pharma comms this decade

Generation Z

2020 is here and we are naturally now awash with ‘trends’ articles, telling us what to look out for in pharmaceutical communications, and how to do our jobs in the best way possible this new year.

While we often think a trends article is going to be a great read, it can sometimes be disappointing, with a focus on tactical trends that just skim the surface. There’s nothing wrong with keeping up to date on the latest technology that can make a campaign really buzz, but sometimes it is worth taking a step back and thinking about what is really changing year to year.

What has changed the context within which we work? After all, a trend by definition is a flash in the pan. And of course we aren’t just entering a new year but a new decade. So it is the perfect time to take stock of where we are in our industry right now.

A new generation

The most significant change for communicators in any field is the emergence of a new generation. The digital native Generation Z (otherwise known as the ‘centennials’) is now reaching adulthood and independence, entering the workforce and starting to engage with health services. The centennials are markedly different from their predecessors, the millennials.

Unfortunately, many in industry have been slow to adapt their communications practices to suit millennial audiences, so now the pressure is really on to make sure that audience targeting keeps up.

While there is some evidence to show that the reputation of pharma with the public has been picking up in recent years, the impact of the Orkambi story last year has had an impact. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn felt emboldened to make political capital out of the industry with the launch of ‘Medicines for the Many’ at a 2019 conference and the ‘Public Health before Private Profit’ strapline is testament to that.

Moreover, many of the Labour Party policies were supported by a majority of the population, including voters who would typically vote Conservative. One suspects that Generation Z would have been overwhelmingly supportive of the Labour position. With switched-on centennials keeping watch on the organisations they want to engage with, trust is set to remain an issue.

Pharma needs to demonstrate that it is a force for good. For Generation Z, a company’s actions must match its ideals, and while this is a generation more pragmatic in many ways than the previous one, what is important is standing up to scrutiny and not claiming to be something you are not.

The climate decade

There is little doubt that the ‘20s are to be the climate decade, and communications functions within pharma and supportive agencies have to factor this into external and internal, proactive and (importantly) reactive plans.

There is a real opportunity for pharma to demonstrate what it is doing to invest in the future health of the planet, but just as important is to demonstrate an awareness of the issues, and show that solutions are being genuinely sought.

Engagement, rather than one-way broadcasting, is key here and a critical way to win the support of younger audiences. The way this is handled represents a make-or-break situation for pharma in the battle to retain the public’s trust.

Strategy, craft and creativity are required when communicating about climate change, but also when talking about individual people’s lives. Patient-focused campaigns and cause-related marketing programmes are also under scrutiny.

They have to be authentic to win the day and authenticity shines in a campaign produced with a genuinely patient-centric organisation that has committed to a co-design process with patients and their representatives. One change we have noticed at the end of the ‘10s is that patient organisations are growing more confident in their requests for genuine commitments to co-built partnerships.
It’s a hugely positive change, but requires skill from an agency to manage the execution.

The prevalence of patient story-led campaigns means that we also now have to push that little bit harder to capture people’s attention, to make a meaningful contribution to people’s lives, and certainly to pique the interest of editors. But with deftness of approach, and the right creative and crafting skills on board, the opportunity is there to support and validate patients and make a real difference to their lives.

The advocacy landscape

The other side of the communications coin for us lies with our policy and parliamentary work. Understanding of the parliamentary and policy environment is critical. Most important is an understanding of how this interplays with the consumer world. Our best campaigns happen when we look at all audiences together, and integrate our public strategy with our public affairs approach.

The ‘20s offer a great opportunity for industry to help deliver change in the advocacy landscape for patients. The scale of the Conservative election victory combined with five-year fixed term Parliaments means that we can probably expect most currently sitting MPs to be in place for the rest of the decade.

With that in mind, pharmaceutical companies should now recognise that it is worth investing time and resources in understanding the make-up of the current Parliament, and working with MPs to champion health-related causes.

There are 140 first-time MPs and 15 who are returning to the benches having sat previously, although not in the last Parliament. Most of these are new Conservatives. This group of MPs are the most diverse so far in terms of sex, race and sexuality, although women still lag behind men in terms of equal representation.

So campaigns which focus on health inequalities are likely to better received by Parliament, as well as by NHS England which dedicated a whole chapter to the subject in the Long Term Plan. Of the new and returning intake, we estimate that 41 (just over a quarter) have an interest in health and NHS issues.

A pretty significant proportion. They are made up of healthcare practitioners, people with experience in relevant managerial roles, ex-journalists and even communications professionals. One is only 23 years old. Many others are young millennials, possibly with Generation Z siblings.

We have identified at least eight who have a strong interest in mental health, and a handful who have a particular interest in cancer. Others will also have their strong personal interests. Laying the groundwork in establishing effective working relationships with new MPs to champion health- related issues and causes is likely to pay dividends for the rest of the decade.

The NHS reform agenda

The other significant impact of the large majority is that the Government has taken back control of the Brexit agenda from Parliament, which means the domestic policy agenda returns to the fore after a three-year hiatus. The NHS is an evergreen domestic priority, but it is going to be brought into sharp parliamentary focus in 2020 as the NHS reform agenda picks up pace after being frustrated by Brexit.

This year alone, there will be five pertinent pieces of legislation including Bills on NHS Funding and the Long Term Plan, Mental Health, Social Care, Patient Safety and Medicines and Medical Devices.

As the Long Term Plan receives legislative support, we will see an acceleration and expansion of the fledgling Integrated Care Systems. For instance, the draft NHS Standard Contract 2020/21, published in December 2019 will see NHS Trusts and CCGs being contractually obliged to work collectively as a single local ICS system, collaborate to achieve financial balance and jointly agree on Local System Operating Plans.

Over the next five years at least, campaigns and messaging will need to be relevant and reflective of the needs of the ICS if they are to effectively cut through the noise, reach decision-makers and change behaviour.

With Matt Hancock being retained as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the burgeoning social prescribing movement is likely to continue to receive support at the highest level.

His championing of this movement at the end of the last decade culminated in the launch of the National Academy for Social Prescribing, and as we write, hundreds of link workers are being trained in their new roles within Primary Care Networks.

There’s little doubt that some within the industry once saw social prescribing as a potential threat, but this would be a very shortsighted view. In many cases, social prescribing can work as an adjunct to pharmacological treatment, and may have a particularly valuable role to play in long- term conditions, making medicines much more effective.

Industry should be willing to partner in this significant change in the way people receive care – those that do so will have an interesting story to tell. Once again, this approach to collaboration will chime well with a new generation, noted for its characteristic desire to want less confrontation and more dialogue from organisations, and its recognition of the need to ‘break down the system’ to achieve societal change.

A generational shift

Let’s not forget the impact of Generation Z’s arrival on the pharmaceutical workforce too. Those 21-year-olds born at the turn of the century are now entering grad schemes and may be embarking on long-term careers in the industry.

For a company that has the best intentions to do everything right, to walk the walk as well as talk the talk, we would say don’t overlook your internal comms or make it an afterthought. Make sure everyone on your team knows that you mean it.

Organisations should look at their communications every time there is a generational shift, for internal communications, for creative, consumer-focused campaigns, and for advocacy and environmental change.

The art of telling the right (and true) story, to the right people, in the right way is what communications means now. The old 20th century take on ‘PR’ as a boardroom afterthought may have clung on through the ‘00s and the ‘10s, but the new kids are on the block now and it’s time for a rethink.

James Hollaway and Philippa Cahill are both Directors at M&F Health

13th February 2020

James Hollaway and Philippa Cahill are both Directors at M&F Health

13th February 2020

From: Marketing



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