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Conferring greatness

John Kershaw claims fixing the broken conference model will improve internal communication

A conference table with several microphones aligned along its centreLet's face it: communication as we know it is evolving so rapidly it can be hard to keep up, let alone predict what will come next.

Although the pharmaceutical sector is traditional by nature it too is embracing the many innovative ways of communicating with its numerous and diverse audiences. For instance, who would have thought a mere decade ago that the pharmaceutical world would be using social media to converse directly with patients? Social media has also enabled the industry to gain a more profound understanding of what doctors need to empower them and their patients.

Despite this shift in methods of communicating with stakeholders, who would ever think to challenge the way the pharmaceutical industry sets out its own internal communication strategies? After operating in the same way for so many years, why re-invent the wheel?

However, conferences and live events have taken quite a beating of late, often being portrayed as nothing more than a great few days out, while being tax deductible of course. Yet in a global survey of 2,300 Harvard Business Review subscribers, 95 per cent of the respondents claimed that face-to-face meetings are a key factor in building and successfully maintaining business momentum.

These results suggest that it is not the conference concept itself that should be scrapped, but rather the conference model that needs to be re-worked.

Although it might seem both scary and counter-intuitive, bucking a long-held (and at times outmoded) attitude is exactly the sort of impetus that gave Henry Ford the inspiration to create the motor car when all around him were clamouring for faster horses.

So let's take a long hard look at the tried and tested pharmaceutical conference model to see where it could be improved.

The current model
Historically, pharmaceutical conferences have tended to centre around lavish product launches and training, with sales teams meeting regionally. One of the key drivers of this format is that the sales teams see this type of event as a 'treat', but nevertheless a treat to which they are fully entitled as part of their jobs. This perception appears to be woven into the very fabric of the sector, as it is believed that this type of 'indulgence' is the best way to demonstrate that the sales teams are valued and ensure their motivation.

This model involves an initial peak of activity associated with high cost. Once the sales teams return to their regions, however, the impetus and motivation engendered by the event soon wane. Life goes on. The corporate messages are rarely re-inforced and the significant financial investment that was made over the three- to five-day period has little long-term impact (other than with the accountants, of course). It would be true to say that the only lasting benefits these events offer are the networking opportunities, as a conference of this type offers an ideal opportunity for long-distance business relationships to be re-kindled.

Aside from the lack of lasting impact, this model has other significant flaws. The worst case scenario is when a conference leads to a sense of dis-continuity: the event was part of another life, representing something quite separate from the reality of everyday life at work. If the corporate and brand messages bear little resemblance to what the sales teams are routinely doing, it will be a case of 'That was a great jolly but now the party is over and we are back to where we were.' 

A new way
So how do we build a motor car instead of a faster horse? Fundamental change will be required in order to produce a more effective method of internal communication.

If we take as a key issue the fact that momentum gets lost over a relatively short period of time, then it makes sense to develop a sustained series of low cost/high-impact events through the year, rather than a single low-impact/high-cost event, as in the current model. 

The disruptive model — in which 'disruptive' signifies a communications campaign that jolts audiences into paying attention, particularly when they are least expecting it — aims at cascading initiatives through the teams by spreading messages in a staggered fashion. This boosts transparency, identifies core issues, stimulates grassroots conversation and triggers action. It should also keep the brand message alive, ensure engagement is sustained, and maintain a healthy level of motivation.

Re-capturing how the event made the delegate feel is key. If those emotional cues can be triggered on a regular basis a positive pattern will start to emerge and behaviour will change accordingly.

The current model focuses all energy and investment on a single annual event, instead of ensuring the central branding proposition is kept alive and re-inforced throughout the year.

Moving the conference model away from a single, high-outlay event also makes particular sense in the current economic climate, where the focus is primarily on maximising the return on investment or, put more crudely, reducing costs. To achieve real ROI the emphasis must be placed on addressing a full calendar year rather than cramming everything into one major event that risks losing momentum a couple of months down the line.

Conducting a disruptive campaign is not as simple as throwing in all the various communication tools we have at our disposal and hoping the message sticks. There is a real risk of blurring the messages if the cascading technique is not set out strategically. 

The key is for it to appear spontaneous, for the cues to appear at natural touch points and for the messages to be reinforced in a strategic manner. These key messages should not be merely bolted on: they need to be displayed, relayed and disseminated in a way that adds gravitas to the communication campaign. Keeping an ear to the ground and ensuring that communication is streamlined is an art. Clever use of different channels — internal networks, social media, face-to-face, print and online messaging, for example — is at once subtle yet powerful.

Implementing a new model
Introducing new techniques does not automatically mean that an entirely new set of strategies backed by expensive technology must be implemented. To create an internal communications programme, companies can leverage existing infrastructures, defining what resources are available immediately.

The old 'show business' style of conferences is becoming a thing of the past. Technology has driven many of the extraneous frills and trappings out of the business world: we are now living an era of ultra-slick, clarity-centric communications, which fits perfectly with the pharmaceutical sector's clinical persona. Regular, rapid response events allow for breaking down a central brand proposition to re-inforce its different facets and optimise two-way communications.

And that's not all. Developing a two-step communication strategy with employees is another way to make people sit up and take note. Weaving a five year communication strategy into the usual 12 month plan enables employees to see 'the bigger picture', the long-term goals, and to buy into — and, to a certain extent, take ownership of — the evolution of the company. 

Finally, it is worth ensuring that those in charge of sourcing and managing the communications roll-out are a passionate, engaged and dynamic team who enjoy adjusting to new and unexpected challenges.

With these tools in place to alter the internal communications model, costs can be reduced and ROI and internal message retention can be increased.

Photo of John KershawThe Author
John Kershaw is operations manager and senior producer at Pumphouse, and has 12 years' experience in events management. Before joining Pumphouse John's projects included car launches for Lexus, Fiat UK and Nissan Europe, and work in the retail, financial and manufacturing sectors. John has produced events all over Europe, in the US and Central America, as well as at the North Pole.


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24th August 2010


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