Tunnah’s musings: the elephant in pharma’s room

Paul Tunnah


In last month’s piece I addressed some of the common untruisms I hear about pharma’s use of social media, or lack of. For those who read this you’ll have probably picked up that I believe the essence of good social media use comes back to the basics of marketing and indeed communication within a business environment.

The same simple logic of considering who the customer is, what their needs are, how to develop products to meet those needs and how to communicate the benefits of those products should permeate through everything pharma does and is common to every industry. But there is one fundamental issue that is a little bit more unique to pharma and it’s raising its head more and more. It’s the elephant in pharma’s room that no-one likes to talk about and it’s pretty simple – pharma’s PR stinks.

“…there is one fundamental issue that is a little bit more unique to pharma and it’s raising its head more and more.”

Before you go leaping to pharma’s defence, let me say that I would be the first to advocate the tremendous volume of good work the industry does. Over the past 50 years, medical advances have made a real difference to many people’s lives and there has been a growing tide of corporate philanthropy in supporting various global disease initiatives, particularly in the developing regions.

But despite this, you don’t need to follow discussions relating to pharma in any media source for too long before you come across some very angry voices. Sometimes it’s angry patients who believe they’ve been wronged by the industry, at other times medical experts who fear commercial bias is moving pharma away from its ethical objectives and on occasion whistleblowing stories from journalists who’ve found something dirty in the back of pharma’s closet.

The challenge is that, as with any other industry, those angry voices are much more vocal – it’s the old adage about a happy customer telling a friend and an unhappy customer telling ten. The other issue is that pharma is an extremely emotive industry. Get it wrong here and it’s not like selling someone a duff phone (and even that gets a lot of hackles up), instead it has a real impact on people’s lives and, in the worst cases, can end them prematurely.

In reality, there’s no smoke without fire and there is some substance behind some of these “anti-pharma” voices. They’re not going to go away until they get some attention, but pharma’s PR isn’t going to improve until they stop. More importantly, better pharma PR equals better customer engagement and improved delivery of effective medicines, so something has to done.

So what’s the solution? There’s no simple one, that’s for sure, but there are some logical steps I think the industry needs to take (and in fairness many companies are taking at least some of these):

1. Acknowledge the problem

It’s easy to dismiss what you don’t want to hear, particularly if it’s not said in a particularly nice way. I’ve witnessed some pretty personal and vicious attacks on individuals working within pharma through channels such as Twitter, for example. Is it right for an angry patient to lash out at someone like this, probably not, but it doesn’t mean the issue underlying that anger should be dismissed either. Most people don’t have the energy or inclination to get so emotive about an issue without a root cause that leaves them feeling deeply wronged.

“…it’s the old adage about a happy customer telling a friend and an unhappy customer telling ten.”

And it’s not just a few vocal patients, there are also some fairly high profile medical and academic professionals who are voicing very anti-pharma opinions. Of course, some of these people have their own agenda at heart (in some cases simply to raise their own profile through attention grabbing rants), but there are enough dissenting voices to suggest some strong underlying issues.

The first step, therefore, is for pharma to acknowledge these issues exist internally and not dismiss all opponents on the basis of them being a “lunatic fringe”.

2. Understand the issues

Once it’s been accepted that there is an issue it’s logical to want to understand what’s causing it. This is the time for engaging with those complaining and for listening to what they have to say. It might sound like a brave or even foolish thing to do, but usually people are shouting because they want to be heard.

The right channel for this will vary depending on the person or groups that pharma is trying to engage with, but the important thing is to ensure that it is in an environment in which they feel comfortable (preferably a private forum) and to listen hard. When people criticise what you have done, or are doing, every instinct is to push back and defend yourself, but if this can be resisted then the feedback received can be incredibly useful.

In listening, pharma will hear some about some issues it probably already knew about, but also some it didn’t. But in the process, by allowing these “dissenters” to engage, pharma companies can humanize themselves and get people talking to people rather than faceless corporations. This is a critical step in the right direction.

3. Accept responsibility

Saying sorry is always hard to do and it’s practically unheard of in big corporates. Vast armies of legal teams will talk about the liability of admitting to errors and make it practically impossible for senior execs to issue an apology. But let’s face it, when big pharma is paying out multi-million dollar fines as settlement fees for misdemeanours it’s a pretty obvious declaration of guilt.

“…pharma companies can humanize themselves and get people talking to people rather than faceless corporations.”

So why not go that extra stage and say “sorry, we messed up, we’re going to take steps to make sure this can’t happen again”? Take a look at some of the recent legal cases around mis-promotion of drugs, or alleged “hiding” of safety data, which has led to patients experiencing severe side effects or even losing their lives in circumstances that should never have been possible. An apology can’t turn back time and cure these people or bring them back to life, but it can give them or their families hope that others won’t be impacted in the same way in the future.

In some small way, that might just restore some trust in the pharma industry and help appease those who have lost faith in it.

4. Communicate a better way

Ultimately, no-one can turn back time and change what has happened in the past, but companies can take very clear steps to ensure the right things happen in the future. It’s happening right now, driven at least in part by some of the new anti-bribery legislation impacting promotional spend and marketing activities, but companies also need to take proactive steps to enforce the right behaviour.

The challenges here are twofold. Firstly, accepting and communicating in the right way that pharma has to walk a delicate line between an ethical focus on developing effective new medicines and also ensuring it is a successful commercial industry. The latter is intrinsically linked to the former, because commercial success equals more money to invest in new R&amp,D, but it is a very difficult balance. Secondly, in putting in place guidelines and processes to ensure the right behaviour pharma needs to ensure it doesn’t stifle any engagement with healthcare providers and patients due to fear of breaking the rules. That’s a really tough one to get right.

It takes two to tango

Finally, I’d like to finish with a message to all those who are voicing anti-pharma views, some of whom I’ve been fortunate enough to engage with and learn from myself. Give the industry a chance – change is happening and there is recognition that some past activities were very wrong. But remember, the most visible pharma folk that are often the only human target of your frustration are not usually the ones who have done wrong. In fact, the opposite often applies and the wrong-doers are most likely to be hiding away in the back office out of the public eye, even if they manage to keep their jobs.

“Give the industry a chance – change is happening and there is recognition that some past activities were very wrong.”

So if pharma takes the opportunity to listen to your concerns then those faceless corporations will start to disappear and you will see the real people that I see every day in pharma. These are people who are passionate about improving or saving lives, who get out of bed every day to try and make a difference and who are equally angry about those who behave badly and tarnish the good work they are doing.

That’s it for this month, so let me know your comments and until next time, stay well.

The next article in ‘Tunnah’s musings’ can be viewed here.

About the author:

Paul Tunnah is Founder and Managing Director of www.pharmaphorum.com, the dynamic online information and discussion portal for the pharmaceutical industry featuring news, articles, events / company listings and online discussion. For queries he can be reached through the site contact form or on Twitter @pharmaphorum.

How do we cure pharma’s PR issues?