Pharma comms is one of the most dynamic sectors of the industry. So, what should be on communicators’ radar?
Pharma communications is in a constant state of flux. As the NHS and society changes, and as technological advances are made, the trickle-down effect is felt by the comms teams. Says Sabina Syed, managing director at Visions4health: “Over the last five years NHS customers are becoming increasingly time and budget constrained, digitally savvy, want to receive information via a variety of sources and their capacity for face-to-face interactions with industry is dwindling.”
In addition, says Syed, who is also co-chair of the PharmaTimes Communications Team of the Year (CTOY) steering group, the era of the one-size-fits-all approach to NHS customers is dead.
The only way for pharma comms to keep up has been to evolve. As such, “pharma has responded with a differential approach to interacting with customers” in terms of who connects with which customer and by what means, Syed says.
This evolution of pharma comms has accelerated in the past five to ten years, turning pharma comms from PR darlings into problem-solvers, notes Harry Brady, director of policy and communications at MSD and member of the CTOY steering group.
"Pharma communications has always spanned a huge area, from scientific updates and exchange (medical education) to communicating corporate or product milestones and differentiation, to disease awareness programmes, to market access and uptake communications. And then there is issues management. What’s reassuring is that all those functions still exist,” he says. “What’s challenging is that the way we do them has to be different, or we will fail where we succeeded before.”
Indeed, any change brings challenges and for pharma comms it is certainly no different. So, what should be on the pharma comms radar?
As Brady notes, pharma’s customer these days isn’t just the prescriber anymore. It could be a prescribing adviser in a clinical commissioning group, a chief pharmacist in a hospital or a decisionmaker in a regional medicines optimisation committee. Syed agrees, adding a whole host of other potential pharma comms customers, including nurses, pharmacists, hospital and commissioning budget holders, procurement departments and hospital operations directors, with the high possibility of more roles being added as the NHS continues to change.
Segmenting this audience and factoring in their communication needs and preferences has become an enduring challenge for pharma’s communication departments. “Communication tools and materials need to allow for diverse conversations and education based on the customer’s agenda,” says Syed. “An integrated customer communication plan is key to the success of how materials and engagement programmes are deployed.”
But it’s no easy street, adds Brady. “As communicators, we have to figure out how to reach the right people with a clear, evidenced message in the noisiest media environment, the most distracted policy environment and the most highly regulated industry I have ever known. And, if we don’t get that message through, national policy could stagnate, local implementation could falter and innovation may not get through to the people who need it.”
Syed thinks the industry should be going further with its approach to communications, to become more granular and localised. That is, NHS customers are asking for information to be adapted for the local health system including local demographics, local population health priorities and impact on local staff, services and pathways. As such, comms need to tailor the message to the local audience, Syed says. “Comms teams have to ensure their approach to the development of campaign materials, education programmes and engagement tools enable this ‘local adaptation’ to happen.”
In many ways, the advent of digital is perhaps one of the biggest challenges that pharma comms faces, where digital is transforming the way everyone engages with information – and pharma’s customers are no exception. At a first glance it’s easy to get swept away by its potential, especially when considering the benefits for a segmented, time-poor group of customers, but dig beneath the surface and you find a fair number of stumbling blocks, namely the how to do it in line with regulations.
Jonathan Dancer, managing director of Redbow Consulting and another COTY steering group member, says this becomes particularly tricky when social media and digital are becoming a greater component in people’s lives. The limitations pharma faces in communicating with patients makes it increasingly difficult for patients to understand pharma’s stance around how it communicates and this is the challenge for the industry to manage, he explains.
Furthermore, the thing with digital is it changes pretty quickly, posing a challenge for comms teams to keep up. For instance, Brady highlights the reduction of content to “bite-sized pieces”, typified by the tweet. “If only social media had come with an instruction manual for pharma comms, or a defined audience matrix,” he says. “But it didn’t, so the pharma comms community is doing its best to work with it, whether through listening or actively engaging. And, let’s be honest, it’s difficult if you set your expectations too high.”
That said digital and multichannel communication has become an important part of pharma’s conversations although, as Brady notes, “we should resist the temptation to think that communications is now ‘all about social media’” because, he says, social media cannot achieve all that pharma comms needs. “It adds to a growing and colourful tapestry of options but we are as much in need of well-evidenced and well-reasoned narratives as we ever were, whether they are delivered virtually or in the flesh”. Dancer also says that while digital is just a channel enabler it does require specialist skills to optimise and apply. He adds: “Getting the best out of the wonderful healthcare technology available today requires a concerted effort from everyone.”
And indeed, getting it right can open up new opportunities, whether that is gathering new customer insight or sharing communications in more creative and engaging ways, Brady says. He highlights MSD’s Strategic Communications team, who have developed digital guidance for the company, as a case in point. “They’ve launched our presence methodically on Twitter, then YouTube and now LinkedIn, helping us to optimise each platform for corporate announcements, public health campaigns and expressing solidarity with partners across our broad range of therapy areas. It’s early days and we’re all still learning but I’m excited about what we can do, thanks to them.”
While patients have always been integral to healthcare, recently there has been more noise around patient-centricity. Alongside this has been the push towards outcomes and value in a cash-strapped NHS. In both cases, pharma comms has a role to play, although it needs to be carefully navigated given the restrictions on direct communications with patients.
“Pharma has within its gift today the ability to define and communicate outcomes that matter to patients, not just clinical markers or process measures,” Syed says. “More can be done to research and communicate what matters to patients and inform NHS customers, support their patient interaction tools and patient materials.”
Brady agrees, saying pharma can have a role in supporting the vision of better informed patients and more patient-centric care through collaborations with patient organisations and through pharma campaigns. But he notes that the dynamics do not mean that pharma is communicating more with patients, but rather that pharma is communicating differently, and that this is usually through digital.
Comms teams have made a stellar effort to get to grips with the evolving communications environment but there is always room for improvement. Brady suggests greater collaboration with the marketing, market access and medical colleagues to “perfect the mix of communications going out”. He also encourages a more open and sharing culture between comms teams in pharma companies and agencies to optimise comms opportunities. “Organisations like the Healthcare Communications Association are perfect for this unbiased conversation, and I think they are under-utilised,” he says.
Syed pushes for a redefinition and more systematic approach to measuring the return on investment for pharma comms. For years it has been argued that comms is too vague to determine its ROI but Syed says having metrics based on the customer’s perception of brand value as well as assessing the capability, impact and alignment of field staff in delivery of the communications strategy could go some way to rectifying this.
At the end of the day though, understanding the target audience and delivering an appropriate message in a credible and transparent way will be key to optimising comms in this increasingly diverse and complex healthcare environment.
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Katrina Megget is a freelance journalist specialising in the pharmaceutical industry