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People power

Digital media and the rise of the 'millennial' have shifted focus to the individual as an agent of change

A row of silhouetted figures holding handsWe are in the midst of a seismic shift in communications' theory and practice, fuelled by the rise in the power of the individual as an agent of change. The convergence of the coming of age of the millennial generation, the widespread adoption of interactive and online media channels and a growing distrust of established organisations as information sources and authority is driving this shift. Collectively, these factors are changing the way we communicate today, moving us towards a personalised communication mindset.

Young adults now in the workplace who were born in the (relatively) prosperous years between 1980 and 2000, so-called millennials (also known as Generation Y) have been shaped by the events, leaders, developments and trends of their times. Not content to be 'told' what to do, millennials want to know 'why?' and 'what's in it for me?' before pursuing any course of action. With this sense of entitlement, they seek out individuals who they know and trust for validation of the information they receive - and their success in getting the answers to their questions is influencing other generations to ask questions too.

As a society we are increasingly questioning the validity of established media channels and big organisations. The explosion in media channels has fragmented the establishment voice. Years ago, the BBC was the single voice of the nation. Today there is a plethora of broadcast channels and literally thousands of choices for media consumers. Add to that local, national, regional and 'town hall' radio stations, paid-for and freesheet print media and it's easy to see how we are bombarded with conflicting information and opinions, and that's without adding the internet into the equation. To make sense of it, we process and select channels which address our individual beliefs and tastes, colouring the way we interpret what we see, read or hear.

Conspiracy theorists have their place in driving mistrust of larger organisations, but, in the main, anti-establishment attitudes have at their heart the entirely human need to gossip about, support or depose those who have influence over our lives. For example, the vilification of the banking system may have been media driven, but at an individual level reflects deep-seated grievances based on a sense of personal powerlessness against faceless corporations. In the simplest sense, it's 'them' vs 'us.'

What's happening at a media level?
The media landscape is evolving rapidly, driven at least in part by economic necessity, but also by new technologies and societal change. From a healthcare perspective, many of the well-established specialist reporters are no longer employed as journalists by the media for which they report, but transferred to temporary or short-term contracts which provide employers with greater flexibility (and lower staff costs).

Overall, experience is becoming expensive, and specialist reporting is increasingly being outsourced or dispensed with altogether. Today, the experienced, scientific-savvy health reporter is being replaced by someone who may never have taken a science class or understands the regulatory environment in which we operate. Further change is being driven by the emergence of citizen journalists using new media to reach audiences in an entirely new way.

Traditionally, excellence in news gathering means an impartial reporting of the facts, leaving the consumer to make up their own minds. In citizen journalism, personal beliefs and opinions are paramount, and the interpretation that the individual places on the actions of others is a key element of each story. The sheer volume of internet material available means that citizen journalism is beginning to overwhelm more traditional media. This is not to say that all online reporting, blogging and commentary is inaccurate or biased, merely that for the casual browser there is no way to distinguish between stories that are accurate, inaccurate or somewhere in between.

How can we lead people to the information source that's right for them, especially given the ever-decreasing attention span of media consumers? The soundbite generation requires short, snappy info bites, rather than well thought-through, well-argued discussions. We need to condense information about often complex conditions and treatments, while at the same time providing context with multiple points of view.

A public relations perspective
PR is defined as 'the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its public.' At its heart is the concept that to be effective, PR must listen to what its public (audience) has to say and then respond to it. In modern business parlance, however, PR has become a shorthand for 'promotion' – much more about saying what we want to say than about listening, learning and redefining. Partly this is because it's hard to find out what our audiences really think and feel without spending huge sums on market research, which becomes out of date almost the moment it's completed. 

In the past, message development has been based on our perception of what our audiences think, rather than what they actually think. The explosion of individual voices clamouring to be heard means that we have the opportunity to really get under the skin of our audience and understand  its perspective. From an agency standpoint, this means we must design programmes that reach out to audiences as groups of individuals rather than market segments, engaging more directly with people to debate and drive change.

What does this mean for pharma?
Pharma is a favourite target of conspiracy theorists; it is regularly vilified by politicians, media commentators and medical watchdogs. The mistakes of the past are hung out to public scrutiny on an increasingly frequent basis, and as a result organisations become increasingly cautious about the way in which they communicate, and with whom. Regulators hedge pharmaceutical communications with greater and greater restrictions, firmly controlling what can be said, on pain of legal action and worse. We end up focusing on minimising the risk of litigation and criticism, rather than telling our story. It's a 'command and control' approach, designed to prevent misinformation and promote factual accuracy.

Unfortunately, this approach is sometimes interpreted as 'deceitful' by those who are desperately seeking dialogue. Closing down routes of communication and prohibiting companies from engaging in direct conversations about medicines simply reinforces the view of the industry as being a faceless monolith interested only in profit.

It's also worth considering the situation in which pharma now finds itself. In a sense, many of the 'mass' killer diseases have been tamed to a greater or lesser extent. This doesn't mean there aren't still diseases to be conquered, but on the whole these affect smaller numbers of patients or are related to increased life expectancy resulting from the effective treatment of previously fatal diseases.

Right now, pharma is increasingly about delivering incremental improvements versus older products – second, third, or even fourth generations of therapeutic approaches that were ground-breaking in their infancy. In this environment it's even more important to discuss openly what these new iterations of older solutions may offer in a way that's meaningful for the patient.

How can pharma participate in such complex discussions given the challenges of communicating in soundbites, with personality and within the constraints of current regulation? Short of changing the regulatory landscape overnight, pharma will struggle in the short term to adapt and meet this new communications environment. Closing down routes of communication and prohibiting companies from engaging in direct dialogue about medicines only reinforces negative perceptions of the pharmaceutical industry.

The challenges we face are not insurmountable. They are, however, rapidly evolving and require us to have the flexibility to change and the ability to actively listen and engage. The key word here is journey, since change is the one constant. We must continually evaluate and adapt our methods of engagement. The take-home message? Embrace the agents of change, recognise the power of the individual and continue to evolve if we want to be part of the conversation.

The Author
Anna Korving is founding partner and joint chief executive of Resolute Communications. She can be contacted at or on +44 (0)20 7015 1306.

For more on this topic, see Resolute's PR Week white paper

13th April 2010


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Onyx Health is a healthcare communications and PR agency based in the North East of England, but with a national...

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