In an era of ever-greater transparency and customer demand, what does the pharma industry need to do to boost its reputation?

The Syrian-born former slave turned writer Publilius Syrus (85-43BC) wrote: "Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm." This comment on leadership is as true today as when he wrote it almost 2,100 years ago. 

The pharmaceutical industry has sailed into stormy waters, and there are only two actions to take in such a circumstance: pull down the sail and batten down the hatches, or try to sail out of it. The first course risks a longer time spent at sea, while the second risks a ripped sail or worse. 

At present, pharma looks like an armada with sails and battens down, prepared for the storm but failing to make progress. It is right to be prepared but if it thinks it can wait for the storm to pass it is wrong. The business of saving lives will always be an emotional one and there will always be those who question the ethics of profiting from illness. Yet there is no shame in profit; it drives business and innovation, and has saved, extended and improved the lives of billions of people across the globe.

For those that want to know what a world looks like where no one profits from medical innovation need only to consider the world before the late 19th century. Over the past century global life expectancies have risen from 40 to 70 years, one of mankind's greatest achievements, driven largely by advances in medical science. A whole host of illnesses and diseases, including polio and measles, have been wiped out or placed under control. 

No other industry has played a greater part in medical advancement than the pharmaceutical industry and yet, according to a recent PatientView global survey, it sits just above tobacco and just below big oil for public trust. Pharma leaders need to become better at pointing to the great achievements of their industry. At the same time, they need to become better at distancing themselves from those who undermine the industry. 

When Turing Pharmaceuticals, run by rogue former hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli, bought the rights to an HIV drug last year and raised the price by 5,000 percent, the industry did not do enough to refute this claim. While many others were happy to point to this as an example of the way the industry behaves as a whole, the industry's silence led to what is known in common law as 'consent through silence'. 

All professions and industries attract rogues, but some – politics, the media and banking for example – get tarred when they emerge. These industries do not have the luxury of simply standing aside and claiming, "this is but one rotten apple." When an industry as a whole has a reputational issue, each new case is a further example in the eyes of the public that the whole consignment is rotten. 

The next 'Turing' needs to be challenged more robustly. While weak leaders will bemoan the unfairness of the situation, strong leaders will grab the helm, raise the sails and harness the strong wind.

John's ten-point plan of action

Will another rogue buy a drug and put up the price for a quick profit? Yes. Can you turn this negative media spotlight to your advantage? Yes. Here's how:

  1. Plan: Planning for crises should be fundamental in every major business yet companies can get caught up in the day-to-day and caught out when it becomes less quotidian. Being ready for a crisis means scenario planning and knowing what you will do and say on the day. Airlines don't wait for a plane to crash before formulating a crisis plan.
  2. Identify your weaknesses: Many organisations fear that putting their heads above the parapet will lead to additional scrutiny, which, in turn, will lead to additional problems. Identify any potential weaknesses or criticisms early and address them.
  3. Create a strategy: It is not enough to simply plan for a crisis; successful companies create a strategy that everyone understands and which fits with who they are.
  4. Speak out: It is not enough to have these conversations within the industry; the message needs to get out to those who have not sought it. Use the national media and events to go outside the usual industry comfort zone.
  5. Use your assets: Some CEOs love the limelight but not all great leaders are great orators – however they don't need to be. Identify and nurture those with a natural gift for great rhetoric, regardless of whether they are a CEO or not.
  6. Be more transparent: Issues of trust arise when industries appear to be hiding things. While companies need to hide commercial information, pharma can do far more to show how drugs are developed, where money is spent and why drugs cost what they do – even if that means telling the public that they sometimes have to pay for drugs that never make it to market.
  7. Isolate rogues: It is essential for the majority to identify, isolate and disassociate from rotten elements. This means coming out fast and challenging hard those that damage the industry. This need for speed means that it will fall to individual companies to be first out of the traps as the ABPI and other industry bodies consult widely before speaking out.
  8. Shout louder: An industry with reputational issues needs to work harder to disprove dogmatic views. This means super-human efforts to highlight the good work; industry leaders need to shout louder than those in other industries about charity and pro bono work, about the money spent on training, on research and development, and on economic and employment benefits.
  9. Be proactive: Companies that weather storms do so because they are on the front foot during the good times. They end up with credit in the bank; the good stories mean they are not blown off course by a single event.
  10. Let others speak for you: The industry must work harder to make sure politicians, commentators and stakeholders understand the benefits it brings so that they shout about it in parliament, Holyrood, the European Parliament, the media and elsewhere. This means better internal education and greater engagement.

John Higginson is head of corporate comms at consultancy firm ICG