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How pharma found its voice – health communications for a brave new world

By Richard Buchanan Brown

Richard BB

It wasn’t long ago that the idea of taking centre stage in any public discussion would have brought many pharmaceutical communications teams out in a cold sweat. Concerns around compliance and reputational risk were giving pharma a real public speaking problem. Things have started to change in recent years, and it feels like we have reached a tipping point where a combination of internal and external factors are slowly but surely coaxing companies out of their shells.

Possibly the pandemic and the resulting rehabilitation of pharma’s reputation has had an effect. The tide was turning before this however, which I think has been driven by three key factors. Two of these have been broadly discussed, but I would like to suggest that there is a third factor at play driving a philosophical shift in the way that companies communicate and broadening the range of topics they feel able to talk about.

The first two factors are purpose and empowerment. The prioritisation of purpose has rightly prompted a lot of soul-searching around authenticity, and how to make purpose more than just words on a web page. This in turn leads to an increased interest in how to optimise corporate profiling and asking questions like, ‘what would a true leader in this space do?’ and, ‘how can we demonstrate that we are doing this?’ No one follows a timid leader, so if you want to be a leader you need to lead by example. This has provided a push towards communications to broader audiences and increased confidence around being seen to be trying to drive beneficial change in specific areas of healthcare.

Patient empowerment, linked to the democratisation of information, has been another factor. Across the world the balance of power has shifted with regards to the ownership and supply of information. People expect to access the information they require when they need it, in a format that they can understand and which feels tailored to them. There is a greater expectation for companies to be transparent and to account for how their behaviours reflect their stated values. As patients take their rightful place at the table, they create a demand for high- quality information that has been produced for them as the primary audience, not as a second thought or by spelling out a few acronyms.

The third factor is more psychological. You may disagree, but it seems to me that in a world where ‘fake news’ has become a throwaway term heard in school yards and boardrooms the world over, there is a growing sense of pride in an industry which scrutinises every claim and challenges every qualifying statement before they have even left the building. The regulations we work under have often been cast as a burden by communicators, but today they have become a badge of honour. The fact that we hold our public statements to such a high standard puts us in a very small minority and empowers us with an authority that very few people in public life now enjoy.

Seen through this lens, pharmaceutical companies can cast themselves as a critical and necessary voice of reason. The moves to reduce regulation from other areas of public life have helped to demonstrate the value in enforcing high standards and this has led to the start of a small, but revolutionary, change of perspective. Rather than being a hindrance, or a reason not to engage, the regulatory framework starts to become a compelling argument as to why we should or indeed must engage, if the values we claim to live by are to translate into actual behaviours.

So, what does this mean for communicators? Increasingly the skills we need to succeed in this environment are human-centric. We need to ‘read the room’ politically and consider an increasing range of perspectives. More than ever, we need to help our colleagues understand the changes that we see in the external environment, and the corresponding shifts in expectations that drive and enable a broader dialogue.

To succeed we need to be clear on the detail of our compliance obligations, and give our colleagues confidence that we have considered every possible angle when recommending bold communications approaches. We need to plot a clear path towards the desired corporate outcome, noting the internal and external factors that support our approach and develop a clear, compliant rationale for engagement. Focusing on why we are at the table in the first place is often the best place to start.

Richard Buchanan Brown is EVP PR at dna Communications

Richard Buchanan Brown is EVP PR at dna Communications

29th June 2022

From: Marketing

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