Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Welcome Pharmaceuticals

One of the best decisions I made when I first moved to Seattle was to renew my Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) membership and join the local Puget Sound chapter.  

Ever since I made this investment, I've received the daily online news service in my inbox.  Sadly, I always feel guilty about the East Coast/West Coast difference when I find an article I particularly enjoy because I'm convinced everyone out in Ohio has already read and processed the information I find brand new each day.  

Today, however, there was one story I couldn't help but comment on.  It's by Jim Edwards for BrandWeek: "Why Pharma Fears Social Networking: Drug companies are avoiding online bulletin boards, blogs and chat rooms like the plague, but pressure is building to move the industry into the world of Web 2.0."

Mr. Edwards writes: "Drug brand Web sites almost never carry the features that marketers usually are desperate to give their customers: bulletin boards, chat rooms, logs and Web-page hosting...[marketers] fear that user-generated content will include complaints."  

The customer interaction they're avoiding is what adds to the distrust people feel for the industry as a whole.  Apparently these companies feel that if they can avoid open knowledge of 'adverse-events' or if they can speed-read through their medication's side effects more people will buy their drug.

Today, this is no way to build a positive corporate reputation.  It's widely accepted that at least 60 percent of a company's market value is attributable to reputation.  It's good news, therefore, that the Web 1.0 model may be about to change for drug marketers.  

It will be a tough, but necessary change for pharmaceutical brand managers.  I don't envy their struggle to manage attacks from in-house lawyers.  A study is definitely in order; numbers that managers can hand to lawyers to demonstrate that online customer reports are usually less negative than drug companies imagine.  

We should warmly welcome the push of communications professionals advising drug companies to embrace Web 2.0.  If for no other reason than for an open dialogue with consumers.  Edwards quotes Peter Pitts, an svp at Manning, Selvage & Lee, New York: "Drug companies need to begin embracing ways to look for adverse events instead of hoping they don't stumble across them."   

I wonder about this issue, the need for patient involvement in corporate marketing, at a global level as well.  Last year, (and I'm sure long before) American PR agencies were monitoring the trends in public health in China.  Laura Schoen, the president of Global Healthcare at Weber Shandwick Worldwide wrote an article highlighting just how valuable reputation management is for the emerging Chinese market.  The last couple of years, potential roadblocks included availability of care, better access, product pricing and competition.  I think that today open availability of consumer opinion/experience will either empower or hinder the success of pharmaceuticals in China.  After all, how do companies build strong reputations today?  Sorry advertising, it's not though print ads in newspapers and magazines, it's through consumer interest online.  

Brown writes: "Asians are following a growing global trend of patients who do not rely solely on what they are told in the doctor's clinic when considering their health.  They are beginning to look to other sources for information they believe credible and helpful, such as the media and the Internet."

The need for patient involvement and outreach is further supported by a recent health engagement study by Edelman PR.  Seventy five percent of more than 5,000 people surveyed in five countries stated: "It's increasingly important that health products and services engage with me."  

Brown knew that effective communications could help companies reach out to gain admiration for pharmaceutical innovation, create a sense of hope for the patient population, innovation impacts and productive dialogue about it with health professionals back then.  I wonder if she would agree with me that effective communications today will involve not only a one-sided search for health information but a dialogue between patients and consumers.  

Do we see each other as credible?  Do the benefits to reputation outweigh the costs in monitoring adverse events?  For the sake of my career interests, I hope so.

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