The pharmaceutical industry has a legitimate interest in having a share of voice on public policy issues and engaging with its constituents about the value of treatments it provides. The Edelman Trust Barometer provides insights on effective advocacy.

Benjamin Franklin once said: “it takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”  He rightly pointed out that reputation is based on an organisation’s historical behaviour and it takes years to establish a good reputation, measured by a set of specific metrics. A much more demanding feature to gauge is trust, which is a forward-looking metric predicting whether an organisation will be credible in the future. This is a challenge set by Edelman who for 18 years now have been publishing the annual Edelman Trust Barometer. The 2018 edition measures trust in 28 countries across four institutions: business, government, media and NGOs. But how to gain trust in a post-truth world where accusations of fake news are more and more widespread? The Edelman Trust Barometer has some important insights for the pharmaceutical industry to enable it to face the challenges of credible advocacy and communications in Europe.

Who do we trust in Europe?

Let us first focus on Europe and trust patterns across countries. On average, Europe is one of the regions which places the least trust in NGOs. The highest trust level in NGOs is in Poland (54% of respondents trusting NGOs). Business does not do much better, although a few European countries increased their trust level in business, including Spain, Sweden, Germany and Poland. This may be partly due to the perception of global and local businesses driving the economy in these counties. All European countries surveyed trust business more than the government. Even respondents in the Netherlands, whose government has spearheaded EU policy initiatives that the pharmaceutical industry calls into question, place much more trust in business (60%) than in the government (54%) or NGOs (45%). In the UK, trust in business exceeds trust in the government by more than 10 percentage points (47% to 36%). The question is, can pharma leverage the trust in business for its advocacy work?

Pharmaceutical industry: trusted or not?

Pharma’s ability to successfully educate EU policy making about its priorities is jeopardised by the fact that EU countries do not have a high level of trust in the pharmaceutical industry (trust levels are less than or equal to 50%). In addition, two of the biggest and most influential European countries, France and Germany, are in fact the most distrustful of pharma globally. In Germany, trust in pharma dropped by 12% to a low of 30% due to headlines marking public outrage over high drug pricing and the perception that pharma is primarily concerned with profit. Conversely, trust in pharma in the UK increased by 3% with 48% of British respondents putting their trust in the pharmaceutical industry. Notwithstanding, globally, 80% of respondents agree that pharma puts profit ahead of people. Given these adverse circumstances, pharma needs to be very thoughtful on how it advocates for its priorities in the public policy space.

Which messengers are most credible?

Technical and academic experts are by far the most credible voices in the public debate. While CEOs of companies are still behind these experts on the credibility scale, CEOs note the steepest rise in trust (+7%) which may be partly due to the rise of their voice on global policy issues. CEOs are expected to lead on change and inform conversations on policy in areas such as jobs and economy. There is a scope for the pharmaceutical industry to strengthen the voice of their CEOs in health policy discussions to capitalise on this increase in credibility. In doing so, companies are well advised to present the content in multiple formats, such as sharing personal experiences via video for example. They should also not shy away from providing their CEOs with spontaneous speaking opportunities on policy matters.

In a similar way, pharma companies should activate their employees to advance the policy discussion on social media. Edelman research suggests that 64% of respondents think that employees should participate in company’s social media activities and social media is a more believable source of information than company advertising. Companies should therefore empower their employees and make them confident in communicating on policy positions in social media to engage with stakeholders.

The question remains, however, how can pharma leverage the voice of hospitals and clinicians, which are the most trusted subsector in healthcare for multiple years running? One answer lies in public private partnerships, for example the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), which beyond delivering important innovations, can also prove a powerful platform to reinforce the collaboration between the pharmaceutical industry and clinics and strengthen their respective voices on policy matters. Carlos Moedas, EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation, said at the IMI 10-year anniversary conference that “by creating a stronger link between the public and private sector, we can tap into a wider global network”. It goes further that that. By bolstering the partnership between the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals and clinicians, we can address the global mistrust in pharmaceutical innovation and bring more confidence to health policy making.

Danuta Rydlewska is account director at A&R Edelman