A room with a view: healthcare PR and the steam powered elephant

Alex Butler


Recently healthcare communications has come under some form of attack for its lack of leadership and expertise in the field of social media. The accusation has been that they are not best placed to help pharma through the transition from an old media structure to the social business model many now accept will be needed in the future.

This has manifested itself in often self interested articles posts and comments outlining a battle between interactive, marketing agencies and the old, crumbling world of PR.

As a Chartered Marketer and a full member of the CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations) I find this to be a reductive argument. I have a foot in both camps (this is of course not the right way to look at integrated marketing communications, but that is another discussion) and can see there are many issues with healthcare communications in the UK. It is often a bastion of conservatism and there is an obvious and striking lack of new media thought leadership. In fact the CIPR social media guidance was blinkered and self reverential. When reading this for the first time the words of Arthur Schopenhauer came to mind:

Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.

“Studies in Pessimism,” Psychological Observations, 1851

“…there is an obvious and striking lack of new media thought leadership.”

I would like to tell a brief story not routed in pessimism however, but optimism in the face of great odds. The story is that of an American inventor from the 18th century by the name of John Fitch. Born in Windsor, Connecticut and brought up on a farm with virtually no formal schooling he had an amazing and varied life. He taught himself watch-making and moved through a number of unsuccessful businesses as a brass and silversmith and later a gunsmith. After a brief period as a provider of beer and tobacco to the troops during the American Revolution he passed through surveying until he finally began working on ideas for the first steam powered boat.

After seeing a drawing of a British steam engine used to pump water out of mines Fitch began to design what he hoped would be his steam powered boat. It is these early designs that are of interest to me. We can see from a woodcut published in December 1786 that the early working prototype ‘perseverance’ was propelled by a bank of oars on either side of boat. It was impossible for Fitch at this stage to imagine a boat being propelled in any other way than by the oar. Within 4 years Fitch had already modified the design to something much closer to what we think of as a steam boat today.

Figure 1: Fitch’s Steam Boat 1786 1

This transposition of old models of thinking onto new technology is a common theme. The first steam powered automobiles were in fact steam powered carriages. Some of the designs even had mechanical horses. Even in this time of great technological advancement it was hard even for those minds on the vanguard to imagine a powered vehicle that wasn’t based around the horse and carriage.

One of the most poetic exemplifications of this can be seen in the novel “The steam House” by Jules Verne, published in 1880. The novel recounts the travels of a group of British colonists in the Raj in a wheeled house pulled behind a steam powered mechanical elephant. Steam cars of various types were new in production at the time Verne was working on the novel.

Figure 2: Illustration from Jules Verne’s novel “The Steam House” drawn by Léon Benett.2

“Why is healthcare PR falling behind with new media?”

The questions I have asked myself are these: Why is healthcare PR falling behind with new media? Are they busy building themselves a steam powered elephant? Why is there generally a more innovative and progressive atmosphere within marketing and digital agencies?

I think the answer is complex, for a start this is a generalisation and certainly a simplification. There are many talented and innovative PR professionals and agencies. There are also many people working within marketing who have in no way grasped the issue facing pharmaceutical companies in the face of, what can only be described as a revolution in communications and society.

However I do believe that considering PR consider they are the communication professionals there is a serious short-fall at the present time.

The answer could be found in the very term professional, or at the very least, professional self definition. You will hear people in PR calling themselves professionals far more than those who work in marketing.

Professionals exist to solve hard problems. The training and speciality means they are a scarce resource. They are gatekeepers, controlling access to services and information. The key is the relation the members of this profession have to each other, they look at the world through the lens of their own mutually agreed code. This explains the CIPR guidance.

The trouble for PR professionals and journalists is that the production, reproduction and distribution of information don’t require the vast, expensive and complex business model of the old media landscape. At the present time we are in a period of transition, it is still possible to pretend nothing has changed.

“Pharma PR was based around broadcast monologues of controlled messages, firmly immersed in the old model of consumption media.”

The cold truth is that it is easy to imagine somebody being better at doing what you do. This is the fight PR thinks it is in at the moment. It is almost impossible though for a profession to imagine something happening that makes what they have done obsolete.

Pharma PR was based around broadcast monologues of controlled messages, firmly immersed in the old model of consumption media. Whether my predictions are right or wrong, time will tell. Surely though there is almost nobody with an appreciation of the history of communication, who will argue against the incredible transition from consumption to participation, collaboration and even collective action?

Can PR understand the change from an inside out to an outside in organisation? Can they understand true collaboration, not with a select group of patient and health care professional representatives but with a broad public? Do they even understand the concept of joint and open production? Are they prepared to understand the new landscape of publishing and distribution of information? I will never forget a discussion with a communications professional who was adamant that there were only a very small number of ‘Medical’ journalists they were interested in communicating with.

I feel that until those working both externally to pharmaceutical companies in communications agencies and those who work in house realise that social media is not just an addition to the eco-system, but a whole new eco-system in itself, we will continue to struggle.

John Fitch’s boat ‘Perseverance’ could not have been more aptly named.

**The views within this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Janssen**


1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fitch%27s_Steam_Boat_1786_%28cropped%29.jpg

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:%27The_Steam_House%27_by_L%C3%A9on_Benett_018.jpg

Alex Butler will be taking a short break from his series but will be back tih more content soon!

About the author:

Alex Butler is a global thought leader in health care social media for the pharmaceutical industry with the implementation of a number of innovative projects, including the UK’s first pharma twitter account and the world’s first facebook disease community with open comments and post moderation. He is a regular speaker and writer for the pharmaceutical, marketing, communications and technology press. According to John Mack, Alex is the most followed pharmaceutical company employee on twitter in the world and was the inaugural recipient of the Pharmaguy Global Social Media Pioneer award in 2010.

Alex currently works for Janssen as EMEA Marketing Communications Manager, part of the Johnson &amp, Johnson Strategic Marketing team.

Passionate about new marketing and advertising models Alex is an invited member of the Wharton University Future Of Advertising Global Advisory Board, based in Philadelphia.

Connect with Alex on twitter, Linkedin or google plus.

Why is healthcare PR falling behind with new media?