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Success story

A message that concentrates on how a drug delivers real benefits to people will gain broader lay media coverage

Doctor framing front page of newspaperPharmaceutical companies spend a lot of time and money developing and refining new drugs, but how do they get their message across to the general public? What garners product coverage in the lay media? Pharmaceutical product communication generally touts the concept of 'innovation' freely, but what do journalists think of pharmaceutical innovation and how it is relevant to their everyday reporting? A group of journalists from the lay media was invited to answer such questions.

The word innovation has been subject to many interpretations in the pharma context, for promotional, legislative and reimbursement purposes. Etymologically, the word innovation comes from in and novare in Latin – to renew or restore. While the Oxford English Dictionary defines innovation as the action of innovating, the altering of what is established and the change made by altering something, the 2004 report 'Innovation in the pharmaceutical sector', commissioned by the European Commission from Charles Rivers Associates, defined innovation as 'technological progress that leads to the creation of an entirely new product or a reduction in the cost of producing or an increase in the therapeutic value of an existing product'. Strictu sensu then, the industry is innovative.

Yet for those unfamiliar with pharma and science, where does innovation truly begin? When it changes patients' experience of disease?

Indeed, for the science and health journalists who write for a general public unfamiliar with the pharmaceutical industry, the word innovation holds an additional, more emotional meaning: it signifies a significant stride forward; like the introduction of a new class of drugs such as aspirin (Bayer, 1899) over 100 years ago, antibiotics in the 1940s, statins in the 1980s and MS drugs in the 1990s and perhaps regenerative and personalised medicines today. So why is it so hard to get coverage of so-called innovative drugs in the lay media, which is read by politicians, decision makers and all of pharma's stakeholders and notwithstanding stringent legislation to protect the consumer? The answer probably lies in that emotional meaning. Pharma needs to make a clear case for innovation if it wants to spread its message.

The basis for successful lay media coverage comprises the five Rs:
1. Relationships
2. Repetition
3. Relevance to real life
4. Real benefits
5. Regulation.

Underlying the five Rs is the concept of transparency. The industry as a whole is still often considered secretive, dishonest, manipulative and exploitative of human frailty. In this view of the industry, pharma reaps huge profits, is obstructive on pricing details and does not address issues such as deleterious side effects and manipulation of clinical data. In some European countries, reporters regard the industry with great suspicion and are unwilling to consider the good work it does.

In recent years, companies have made tremendous efforts to boost their images, by opening their doors for R&D days, analyst meetings and open days, as well as investing in corporate social responsibility programmes, which can involve donating huge amounts of drugs to governments and non governmental organisations in different countries or assisting with strengthening healthcare infrastructure. In some countries, the political orientation of a given publication may strongly influence journalists' receptiveness, or not, to pharma stories.

As many major media groups restructure, journalists are having to cover more subjects with less time. They are thus much less specialised. Turnover is higher and faster. For the pharma industry, this means that each time a journalist takes over the health/science mantle, the relationship must be rebuilt and the learning curve for the journalist assured. In the past, journalists were specialists and often knew industry basics and the science, but today it cannot be assumed that they do. It is, therefore, imperative to ensure that journalists understand what is involved in developing a drug and taking it to market, as well as outlining the benefits and side effects of each drug.

In-house media experts and agencies need to know to whom they are talking and what is of interest to a particular journalist and publication. They must be honest in their conversations with journalists, so that strong relationships can be built on information and trust.

The journalist group made clear that the average reader of the generalist lay media is not involved in the pharma business and has very little interest in it. Most readers do not remember what the media writes about pharma and its products, unless the reporting involves some kind of scandal (for example the Vioxx data, Baycol deaths, AIDS drug pricing) or some human element, like incentive payments to physicians. Journalists will cover issues such as skewing of data in clinical trials, deaths from taking certain drugs or participating in clinical trials, exploiting developing country populations, or influencing World Health Organisation decision-making. Such themes fit a certain public perception of the pharma industry as a fundamentally flawed, exclusively profit-orientated and cynical industry.

This means that basic key messages about the industry's mission to change and save lives, to develop new medicines with improved outcomes and to push back the frontiers of disease, have to be reiterated over and over. Fresh new reporters will be seeking to make their mark in the world of print and online media and each time the industry needs to reaffirm its message. Aspirin is well known not only because it has been around for a long time, but also because over the years Bayer has repeated the same simple message to generations of reporters: aspirin relieves pain. 

Relevance to life
To the lay media, it is of little consequence that every year billions are spent on R&D to develop each new drug, or that a protein structure has been altered for a better safety profile or that a specific drug's line extension has been authorised. It is the breakthroughs that change people's lives that make the news. However, therein lies the difficulty of providing an interesting product story for the lay media. There is a real danger that as pharma pushes more 'innovation' stories, the word itself loses its news value as it becomes increasingly removed from the relevance to readers' lives.

When antibiotics were introduced, messaging centred on saving lives. Like the antiretrovirals some decades later, antibiotics made the difference between life and death and that was relevant to generations of patients.

Readers want stories about people, not technical stories. So the pharma companies must ask themselves how their new drug, new formulation or line extension will be relevant to patients. Has it already changed anyone's life? Will patients be able to do things again that they could no longer manage? Will carers have less of a burden? They must consider how they can tell that story in the most human way possible while keeping to the facts. For example, when the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations that cause breast cancer were discovered, the story was both anthropological (susceptibility of different populations) and therapeutic (tamoxifen could be used to reduce the risk of developing the then often deadly disease), making a compelling general interest human story.

Real benefits
The story about the new generation of MS drugs was easy to tell: it kept people out of wheelchairs and it was the first time major progress had been made in over 20 years. Not every drug can make that kind of claim. When statins were introduced, the companies had simultaneously to educate the public on the difference between good and bad cholesterol. However, the basic product message was that the drug could beat the onset of invisible cholesterol and reduce risk of heart attack and stroke. While not as dramatic as keeping people out of wheelchairs or saving lives, there was still a promise of health, activity and independence behind the messaging. For the parent of a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a long-acting formulation is a real benefit; it takes away the need to organise the child's life around his or her medication. The story becomes interesting when the innovation serves people; it is not just for the beauty of business, technology and science.

Because of the rules governing the stock exchange, product communication and investor relations releases often cross one another's boundaries. The journalists felt that when Intellectual Property (IP) issues and legal battles were communicated to the business and lay media, messages were confused, impacting on the overall images of both company and product. Readers are relatively uninformed about IP issues; patients want access to medicines. Once again, in a humanist view of communications, strengthening the human story within the legal story would boost product coverage.

Even in the digital age, maintaining that fragile line of trust is fundamental. It means building good relationships over time and sourcing material that provides a strong human angle. In this ultra-connected world of information and disinformation, pharmaceutical companies have a duty to communicate about innovation with real stories about real people and real medicines. Perhaps the true innovation pharma can bring to lay media communications is transparency.

The Author
Danièle A Castle is CEO of Genevensis Healthcare Communications and senior partner in

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7th March 2011


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