After attending a recent gathering of top communications professionals from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies from around the world, it is clear that their remits have expanded and become significantly more complex than they were even a few years ago. While many topics arose during the two-day meeting, they can be captured by two broad themes:

1)      Increased responsibilities

2)      Increased access to information.

More to Do

Because this conference was geared toward corporate communicators, one key focus was the need to manage the function in such a way as to be able to deliver information – even if it’s negative – while still maintaining, or even improving, the company’s reputation and protecting shareholder value.

On the latter point, one ‘macro’ trend among pharmaceutical companies is that they are striving to no longer be pharmaceutical companies. Rather, they are positioning themselves as biopharmaceutical companies, as this holds more appeal for investors. Such a major shift requires a rethinking of how communication with numerous stakeholders gets done. Mary Stutts, head of global communications for Bristol-Myers Squibb, suggested asking the following three questions of senior management, to ensure alignment between the business and the communications function:

1)      What’s working?

2)      What’s not working?

3)      What are your priorities?

This type of approach also will help busy communications professionals manage their workloads, which can be daunting, by focusing what they do only on those activities that will advance the agenda of their respective organisations. This can be a significant challenge because, at many companies, the corporate communications department is the final port of call for all issues, no matter what their origin. This can include everything from patient complaints to calls from major media outlets to major promotional campaigns to communicating with employees to managing the company’s online and social media activities.

Information Overload

The expansion of the remit of corporate communications, paired with the exponential increase in information-sharing enabled by today’s technology, has increased the potential for communications-driven issues and crises.

One significant concern for all companies is the potential for being found in violation of laws or regulations. Several leading regulatory lawyers presented reasons why this concern is well-placed. The US is leading the way in enforcement, with at least 16 major actions undertaken in 2011. Numerous authorities now are pursuing enforcement actions, including the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, and Health and Human Services. Each one of these agencies is:

  • Pursuing both civil and criminal actions
  • Imposing more significant penalties
  • Targeting individual corporate officers, as well as entire organisations.

It was noted that regulatory authorities in other parts of the world are following the lead of the US – i.e., pushing multiple ministries to pursue potential violations.

The majority of attendees agreed that the best way to inoculate their organisations against the negative blow-back associated with regulatory and other issues is by doing the right things as a business and then promoting those activities properly. Some of the activities most likely to improve the reputation of the industry include:

  • Innovation
  • Scientific stories
  • Patient stories
  • Social responsibility.

Finally, in the context of advancing the agenda of the pharmaceutical industry, THE topic of the conference was ‘going digital’. As one of the keynote speakers, Patrick Connelly of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, put it: ‘If you ignore social media, you’re outsourcing your branding.’

At Creation Healthcare, we help companies translate data into digital strategy. We help companies take the risk out of communicating with their target audiences. For a confidential consultation about our approach to risk management, click here.

Photo by Sebastian ter Buurg