Pipeline PR: building a multi-stage PR program

In this article, Paul Kidwell discusses his approach to pharma public relations (PR) for each stage of the drug development cycle. 

When most biopharm CEOs hear somebody suggest that their company undertake a proactive public relations program they most likely roll their eyes; or put the person suggesting the initiative in their cross hairs. PR conjures a myriad of notions to different executives depending upon their experience – and most bring a legacy of public relations to the C-suite – the images are indifferent at best. Some view it as a strategic business element that supplies a bevy of tactical approaches that help a company reach its business goals, while others think “spin” when mentioning PR; as in, “how should we spin this bad news so our shareholders, Board, employees and future investors do not abandon ship.”

“I have worked with companies who “get it” while others only tap into a small slice of PR’s business muscle.”

PR to many life science executives has become synonymous with a largely misunderstood, misused, and under exploited business discipline, and in my 17 years of performing PR for a host of biotech and pharmaceutical companies I have worked with companies who “get it” while others only tap into a small slice of PR’s business muscle.

In all of my engagements I begin each potential collaboration by asking CEO’s two questions: What is the importance of PR within your organization? What is the success of PR’s implementation within the company? I don’t have the numbers who rated each question high, low or mid-level; but one thing that my eyeball research tells me is that those companies who treated PR as a critical business function that reported directly to the CEO, and insisted that it occupy a seat at the management team table where it would interact, support and often lead the discussion with Finance, Operations, Marketing, Business Development and Commercial; were more often than not successful in communicating the company’s messages to its key audiences and typically held a stronger market position. One other striking phenomenon is how many companies rate PR as essential to their success, and yet often give lackluster performance reviews to the actual function within their corporate infrastructure. I find it incredibly ironic to hear from executives, including those under whose domain public relations is typically found, how much value they place on PR, and yet, they seemingly do not get the expected return on the effort. For those who are underachieving, I am not sure if the fault lies at the feet of the leaders or those who are being led.

Traditionally, biopharmaceutical companies have often shied away from adopting anything that resembles a proactive approach to PR. Thinking that they have little to communicate – particularly those companies who are more early – stage and who may equate public relations as only coinciding with the entrance into the clinic with a Phase I trial – to those key media, investor, shareholder and even future and current employee audiences, many companies feel more comfortable adopting a stealth business persona that enables them to get their house in order before bringing public scrutiny to the company. It certainly is a safer play to bring a company into a fuller bloom of maturity before breaking out into the mainstream, but not a move that is beneficial to the organization, its products and employees. But it begs the question “Why” and “to what end.” What exactly is it that you are keeping safe and what strategic business goal does it help achieve?

“A journalist friend of mine thinks of public relations practitioners as the ‘sled dogs of the news industry.'”

A journalist friend of mine thinks of public relations practitioners as the “sled dogs of the news industry.” And while I like to think of the discipline that I provide businesses as a bit more sophisticated than the image of a team of Alaskan Huskies trudging through the snow with a sled in tow, it is an apt depiction of a business function whose main responsibility is to ensure that an organization’s “story” gets told through earned media; that is, coverage in print, online and broadcast media. More often than not, PR professionals are involved in the placement of a news story, not the writing – that is clearly the domain of a reporter – but bringing the information to a journalist and presenting it in a fashion that aligns itself with the reporter’s area of interest, the publication’s profile, and why readers follow this reporter. This is particularly true in today’s media market where media staffs are often downsized, overworked and unable to keep up with the enormous flow of information that qualifies as news. And while most journalists would be loath to admit that PR plays a central role in the creation of many news stories, I think it is clear as to its influence within the news equation, a fact which an increasing number of biopharm execs are aware of. Sled dogs indeed.

My approach to PR is not as convoluted or mysterious as many business leaders might imagine, and certainly a strategy worth considering at all phases of a company’s growth trajectory. In fact, one thing that all industry executives understand is the process by which they develop medicines to treat those unmet medical needs. It’s what I call “Pipeline PR” and is a formula that allows biopharm companies to tell their story at all phases of development – from pre-clinical to registration and approval – and in so doing reaching those key audiences mentioned earlier with important information upon which they may make important business decisions that may impact the biopharm. Below is a table that details a company’s story that corresponds to where they may find themselves in the clinic at various times. It’s a different story at each stop and tells a unique slice of the company pie in each phase of development. But, just like a drug in development, it continues to build along the way until it crescendos at the time of product launch.


About the author:

Paul Kidwell is an Independent public relations consultant.

What is your approach to pharma PR?