The pharmaceutical industry needs to realise it is not seen as the “bad guy” in the UK - politicians, journalists and the public all hold generally favourable views of the sector, market research shows.

59% of Members of Parliament (MPs), 46% of business and financial journalists and 49% of the public hold generally positive opinions of the industry, according to recent research by Ipsos MORI, according to Sarah Phillips, the firm’s head of health.

In fact, there is little popular interest in the industry at present because of overriding concerns about the economy, she added, speaking at the third annual conference on pharmaceutical industry responsibility and reputation held by Thames Valley University (TVU) recently. So, why does reputation matter? "Because there is a demonstrable relationship between the reputation of a pharmaceutical company and the bottom line,” she said.

To understand how your company is perceived, take a holistic view of all your stakeholders and not just focus on one, she advised companies. For example, messages to journalists and to MPs need to be different because their criteria for judging companies are very different, and while one stakeholder might regard a company’s level of profits as “excessive,” to another they would represent “a healthy margin,” Ms Phillips told the conference, which was sponsored by Lexis Nexis and the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).

Jason Browning, head of communications at Novartis, agreed that a good reputation provides a company with intangible but very real benefits, including: - preserving its “social license” to operate; - attracting more and better talent, which is more important now than ever; - providing a “shield effect” of support to help weather crises; and - attracting and keeping customers.

Reputation aligns a brand (what a company sells) with communication (what it says) and action (what it does), he added.

However, given the amount that the industry puts back into the community, it should be doing a lot better in terms of corporate reputation than it is compared to other sectors, commented Fiona McMillan, health care director at global public relations agency Cohn & Wolfe. Being regarded as a trusted, pro-active advisor and as part of the solution can create a positive “halo” effect on a your products, she said, and urged companies to have an opinion – “you must demonstrate that you have something to say.”

Conference director Kunal Mehta agreed. “The industry is too scared of being misrepresented and finds it safer to be quiet,” he said, while Paul Maguire of Cohn & Wolfe added: “if the issue affects your company, people want to know what you’re doing about it.” Be fact-driven, and give people a straight answer to a straight question, which is what customers want and is far better than hearsay and assumption, he advised.

Keep talking and getting the message across – it doesn’t matter if you have nothing new to say, added Simon Gregor, director of communications at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

You cannot predict when something will go wrong but you must work in the good times to prepare for the bad times, with crisis plans in place that are tried and tested, and always with the focus on the patient first, said Mr Gregor. He advised industry delegates to learn from the negative experience of the financial services sector, which has shown that “when the chips are down, there’s no basis of trust.”

“Be your customer, see it from their point of view, and say sorry when you have done something wrong,” he added, reminding them: “there is only one step from being at the top of your game to having your reputation completely trashed.”