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With good media coverage the equivalent to an advertising spend of millions, marketers need to understand how journalists view the world

We all know that you cannot, in this industry, advertise prescription medicines directly to the consumer. The only way to reach them directly is through public relations (PR) in general, through which arguably the best way is media relations specifically. Yet, media relations is not at the top of the tree in terms of marketing spend or prestige when it comes to communications campaigns. Why is this?

Traditionally, pharmaceutical companies have always valued direct communication with doctors in the UK and Europe above that with patients, partly because of the limits placed on their activities in terms of being able to advertise directly to consumers for prescription-only medicines.

Increasingly, however, with the advent of the internet, the patient - especially the informed patient, armed with cuttings from the Daily Mail and internet printouts - has become more important. Yet, media relations - ie, using the media to reach consumers - is at worst being ignored by the pharma industry and at best undervalued, to the detriment of marketing campaigns. In terms of PR spend within marketing budgets, international PR gets the highest, followed by UK PR, while media relations gets little or no budget (or is included within the UK PR budget).

Hence the need for better pharmaceutical media relations. The media can catapult your drug into the public consciousness quicker than just about any other marketing tool. Take the recent hype around Herceptin: whether or not this actually counts as a bespoke media relations campaign, nowhere was the power of the media better demonstrated than here.


Know your detractors
It is undoubtedly 10 times as hard to place a story with the national media today than it was even five years ago. This is partly because there are so many more PR agencies today bombarding the same 8-10 health correspondents on an almost daily basis. However, there are other reasons and a good one is that health correspondents are getting fed up with hearing from the most junior member of the PR team, whose role it is traditionally to make those dreaded phone calls.

One consequence of consistently poor media relations in the pharmaceutical industry is a general mistrust by the consumer press. It does not stretch the truth to say that some journalists at newspapers like the Guardian regard pharma as something akin to the `spawn of the devil', or even worse. A case in point is the Guardian's coverage of GlaxoSmithKline's Seroxat issues.

This negative attitude permeates through whole swathes of the media, including some parts of the BBC for instance, and even includes some in the trade press. While the trade press in other sectors usually operates in a seller's market (ie, it is easy to get coverage), this is not so within the GP, secondary care, nursing or even pharmacy press - key audiences for the pharma industry.

In business, it is often said that in order to solve a problem, you first have to acknowledge that one exists. To my knowledge, not one pharmaceutical firm actually employs an in-house media relations specialist. Even healthcare PR companies do not really have such specialists any more - partly because of the shrinking budget for UK PR.

Pharmacos need to invest in resources if they are to tackle the media effectively. The best people to undertake media relations are former journalists - people who genuinely understand what is, or is not, newsworthy - those who can identify a story! Yet, most journalists regard moving into PR as 'going over to the dark side' and it takes a king's ransom to lure the best journalists away from the exciting world of media into PR or media relations.

Try on a journalist's shoes
There is a simple truth about PR. If something was genuinely news, it would not need PR. This means that the vast majority of PR calls to the media are not genuine news.

I personally know one BBC health correspondent who, in over 10 years, has never taken a single story from a PR. He says they never, ever give him a good story. His view is not that rare, so the question is: how do we change this?

As a former journalist, I have built up a reputation with national health correspondents over the years, so that they will actually take my phone call personally, realising that I will not knowingly waste their time. This means that even if I am not offering a cure for cancer, I generally offer them something which is potentially newsworthy on an average news day.

I have to construct my offering in such a way that it ticks the right boxes for what comprises a news story: it will always have a peg (be relevant today - not yesterday or tomorrow); generally be a new development of some sort; affect a significant number of people, and pertain to a disease area which is of interest to the general public.

I will try and get them a good case study if they need one (though not all news outlets need case studies). I will always offer up someone for interview. I will always provide something written down - ie, a press release and a backgrounder, and I will always answer their questions and return calls within a matter of minutes if I can. But this is what most PRs also try to do. So what makes a good media campaign?

What an experienced ex-journalist brings to media relations is the certain knowledge of what makes a story. It is as simple as that, but not something which can be explained easily. Media studies students spend three years full-time at university and come out not knowing what is, and what is not, a story. The same can be said of graduates from PR colleges. Media relations is a specialist skill and it takes years on the job, in a genuine newsroom at a newspaper or radio station, to pick up that 'nose for news' which allows you to recognise the angle within a clinical study or piece of research which will tick the right 'journalist box'. It is as much a science as an art form.

In its purest form, it is about simplicity. Think 'cure for cancer' as a front page headline and you won't go far wrong. You have to offer a 'poor man's cure for cancer' every time you go to the media, or it won't work, but the simplicity is in the headline - just three words - 'Cure for cancer'. Everything works backwards from there - the information about the product, the USPs, marketing key messages - all comes later. You have to hook them in first, then they'll listen; not before.

One of the most successful media relations campaigns I can think of boiled down to just three words - 'Britain's arthritis epidemic'. It was evidence-based, new research published 'today'; it affected lots of people - nearly 10 million in the UK; it said something new - one in three people were suffering pain; it came from a charity (not a pharmaceutical company- at least not directly), and there were lots of case studies, doctors and experts from the charity all happy to talk to the media. The results were amazing!


The editorial factor
How much is media relations actually worth? This is the $64,000 question. PR firms pride themselves on being able to measure campaigns accurately and, yes, there are various measuring tools - for audience reach, for example. Yet, no one has come up with an accurate scientific figure for what I call the `editorial' factor - ie, the added value of editorial coverage over advertising.

Put simply, for every 10 people who buy a newspaper, all 10 will read (or at least skim) the front page, while maybe one will read an advert in the bottom left corner. This is the editorial factor. I believe the figure to be, at a conservative estimate, five and probably nearer to 10 out of 10.

Yet, even this is misleading. Take broadcast for instance. Not only is the BBC free from all advertising, but it also has the best brand name for truth in the whole world. So how valuable is a two-minute feature on BBC's Breakfast News in the morning (shown nationally on BBC One) followed by a three-minute interview on the same subject; arthritis, for example?

Well, in theory you could take an equivalent figure for a five-minute advertising slot on ITV. But they don't exist, so take 10 x 30 second adverts instead - minimum £100k. You then multiply by between five and 10 (the editorial factor) - making £1m. But that is still ignoring the 'truth' value of the BBC's brand, which gives you the double whammy: firstly you cannot advertise on the Beeb, and secondly it has the best brand for truth. So really we can double this figure to £2m! If this is then repeated a couple of times during the morning, it adds up to an equivalent spend of £4m!!

And how much do you pay for this? Well, because media relations is so undervalued by the pharmaceutical industry, it is possible to buy it for just £600 per day. Compare this to a day's media training - which will give you four or five doctors, possibly repeating two out of three key messages, and then only if asked - which costs on average £4,000 per day. Which is the better value for money? It's clear to me.

Interestingly enough, when the going gets really tough and the stakes are high - for instance if you are dealing with a blockbuster cardiology drug with the marketing spend already reaching $500m - good media relations becomes the Holy Grail of the PR/marketing process.

A sum of ?50k has been known to be charged for a media relations campaign that really delivers the goods, but even this is surely excellent value for money if you are talking about 100 media hits, including national daily newspapers and national TV, such as the BBC, as well as regional coverage. The equivalent advertising spend works out to tens of millions of pounds - and that's at a conservative estimate.

With this in mind, I leave you to draw your own conclusions as to whether marketing spend should be adjusted to take into account the value of a good media relations campaign.


Easy mistakes to make
The fact is that many marketers are slightly intimidated by the media because they can't control it. You can test every word of advertising copy endlessly with focus groups, but you cannot tell Celia Hall of the Daily Telegraph what to write!

The truth is that most journalists will either cover a story in a pretty straightforward manner (ie, either positive or negative - miracle cure or killer drug), or they won't run it at all. So, since all PR offerings veer towards 'miracle cure' status, there should be no problem over control. The story will either be roughly what you offer, as a straightforward success story, or it won't make it.

It is my belief that a media relations expert needs to work across the communications brief right from the start of a campaign - to provide the media angle, media strategy and media hooks. This means that they need to be involved in that initial meeting process, where the marketing strategy is converted to a PR campaign.

All too often a finished press release is offered to a media relations specialist the day before the campaign launch, only for elementary flaws to be pointed out when it is far too late; such as `this is not a story!' It is much better to involve your ex-journalist/media relations expert much earlier on, to secure good coverage.

Another mistake many organisations make is to produce only a single press release of a medical nature, when in fact the target audience is multi-dimensional: doctors, nurses and pharmacists, as well as consumers.

Our media is such a crowded, competitive market today, that only tailored releases have a chance. The medical press release has to actually address GPs if you want to stand a chance of getting coverage in GP, Pulse or Doctor. It has to have a GP angle and include a GP quote. You need to do the same for the nursing press, as well as pharmacy press.

Finally, a consumer release needs to be written with a mass audience in mind. You may need to do a survey to provide an additional news hook and you certainly need to provide a case study who is media trained with biography and photo, in order to deliver your key messages and not a rival's.

Get your marketing messages heard through media channels people actually use and trust, and it is excellent value for money.

The author
Andrew Carapiet is former BBC health correspondent and is now media relations director at Media Friendly (, a media training and PR consultancy

2nd September 2008


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