For pharma companies brave enough to stick their head above the parapet in order to improve their reputations, the benefits far outweigh the risks

The need for strong, positive messages is a priority for every industry, but with reputation issues arising on an almost monthly basis, pharma may need corporate communications more than most.

"Many people have a very negative perception of pharma, and that's a real challenge," says Emma Knott, account director at PR and medical education agency Publicis Life Brands Resolute. "The industry is still affected by historical issues that gave it a black mark. What isn't getting across is everything that pharma contributes to society, the lives it saves and the advances in medical research."

But even when companies attempt strong corporate communications, it can cause controversy, a situation seen recently with Pfizer's 'I Am Science' poster campaigns right in the heart of the UK's political district, Westminster. While the posters emphasised the cost and time commitments needed to create a new drug, the charity Médecins Sans Frontières contested the figures and accused Pfizer of 'misleading' the public and MPs in order to justify high drug prices.

Berkeley Phillips, Pfizer's UK medical director, defends the campaign and emphasises the importance of all forms of corp comms for both individual companies and the industry as a whole. "We are proud this campaign is helping raise awareness, and we absolutely welcome an evidence-based debate on the critical issue of access to innovative medicines. This is why we have referenced industry-wide statistics throughout the campaign, including the average cost to research and develop a medicine," says Phillips.

"Medicines and vaccines are among the most powerful tools we have to help cure, treat and prevent illness and disability – something we must support, protect and celebrate amongst different audiences through effective communications. Corp comms can also play a key role in illustrating how we collaborate with healthcare partners to improve outcomes and create greater efficiencies in the delivery of care."

Even so, controversy and heavy regulation have led many companies to retreat to safe ground and engage in minimal communication, says Knott, although she adds that there is plenty that companies can do within the regulations. "They can communicate about what they do as a business, their innovations, top-level R&D, what they're doing to support access to drugs. All of this will help boost a company's profile, even if it's not talking about specific products."

The right messages  

A key component of successful communications is ensuring that companies differentiate themselves by putting across a real personality and story, for example as innovators or R&D pioneers.

"There are a whole host of stakeholders in pharma," says Knott. "You've got healthcare professionals, policymakers, shareholders and, of course, patients themselves. Messages must be tailored to these audiences whilst ensuring everything is integrated with this consistent tone and personality running across all communications.

She cites Google as an example: "Google has become known as the definitive search engine; it has had issues with its reputation in terms of tax last year, yet it remains one of the world's most-liked brands."

Pharma leaders have a vital role to play in conveying this personality to the public, she says. "Making sure you have a face is really key; it helps humanise a company and moves it away from that 'big bad pharma' image. One way to do this might be to champion a particular aspect of the industry – for example, women in science or innovation."

Offering the public a human face can also achieve the pinnacle for corp comms across all industries – transparency. "The industries that have struggled the most with their reputation are usually those which aren't transparent," says Knott, "like gas companies that issue bills in a way that make it impossible for customers to read and understand them. This can be addressed internally and there may need to be a cultural shift within an organisation in order for that to be conveyed externally."

The industry is beginning to recognise all this, and the UK's industry association the ABPI is working on several ideas to project a positive image for pharma. "The future is amazingly exciting with some really tricky challenges, and we want to see if we can capture that in a warm-hearted way," says the Association's executive director of communications, Aileen Thompson. "We are currently working on a film project with our members that captures the emotional pull of this amazing industry and highlights what's coming up next. We've also debated whether we should take this above the line and go big – for example, some of our members have run advertising campaigns in the past. We're always looking at doing things in slightly different ways."

On the front foot  

Projecting positive messages is important but sudden and unexpected situations will always arise to catch a company off guard.

Knott emphasises the need for companies to be proactive and well-prepared to mitigate the damage from such situations. She mentions preparations for the upcoming changes to the EFPIA disclosure code as an example. "This is an important milestone for the industry and companies should be prepared with a full communications toolkit encompassing everything from key messages to tailored Q&As, as well as conducting media training and role-play activity to prepare spokespeople as much as possible for any questions that they might be asked. And it's not just spokespeople that need to be considered – ultimately all employees represent their company and need to be aligned."

Scientific publisher Elsevier is a good example of proactive messaging done well, says Knott. "The publishing industry faces similar communication challenges to pharma. To deal with these, Elsevier knew it needed to become more open and transparent. It has created an online platform called Elsevier Connect, essentially a public blog, where its experts can comment on key industry issues. By creating an open dialogue, Elsevier has been able to engage with its critics and has led the way in improving the industry's reputation."

No matter how well-prepared a company is, though, there will always be situations that can't be anticipated. "In that case you go into full crisis mode," says Knott. "As an agency, we get on the phone with the client and agree the processes to be put in place and what communications plan needs to be developed. Usually, it comes back to the openness and transparency; that's the key thing you want to get across in these circumstances."

It seems the situation is looking up for pharma corp comms, though. "Five years ago companies were very reactive and always on the back foot," says Knott, "but there has been a gradual shift towards becoming more proactive. However, there's a long way to go and it isn't something that happens overnight. We have started to see companies open up more and I hope it will continue to move in a positive direction." θ