Why Pharma needs to stop acting and start talking

I have become fed up over the years, of witnessing the industry I am proud to work for, get caricatured as some demonic, uncaring, profit hungry, evil monster.

I see this picture painted, through the traditional media channels and on a personal level, from many people I meet outside of pharma.

“How can you reconcile what you do for a job”  –  “How do you sleep at night doing what you do for a living?”  –  “don’t you think what you do is really unethical”… are just some of the comments hurled my way.

I even tweeted, at a cross industry social media event last year, about the need for pharma to join the conversation.  The response:-

“People actually talking about social media for Big Pharma? Social Media is going to kill Big Pharma – I hope! ”

The allegations behind these comments are often “Profits before patients” – “Hiding side effects of medicines” –  “lack of transparency” – “keeping sick people sick AND on your drugs”

I realise no individual, company or industry is perfect but pharma definitely don’t deserve this polarised reputation…. Or do we?

Sadly, I think yes we do.

Not because I support the negative things that are said, but that collectively we are unprepared to defend ourselves, in the face of such stinging criticism.

In this case the best form of defence is dialogue.  However there is still a lack of concerted industry will, to have conversations with patients and the public, on their agenda and on their turf (which is increasingly online)

There have been some laudable industry projects that have sought to engage patients and the public in conversation, however to date these are few.

So why don’t we just maintain our aloofness, and our self belief that we are well meaning, running an ethical business but also doing good for society.  Just ignore the critical masses, if that’s their view then its their problem?

Actually it is our problem.

Less than half of patients take their medication as prescribed, now there are a number of reasons for this, but do we really think it helps compliance with medication if the patient has a negative view of the industry?

As pharma moves into a world where we offer services beyond medicines to patients, are patients going to accept these services from companies they don’t trust?

How can we move towards personalised medicine, the best treatment for each individual patient without trust?  Trust is key for a patient to accept this level of intimacy and we need to be prepared to understand and care for each patient.

So what should we do?

At an industry & organizational level, we clearly need to set ourselves up, so that we can have an open as possible dialogue with patients and the public.  This includes listening to everything that is being said online about our companies and brands, and responding where appropriate.  Clearly resourcing will have to be redeployed and all discussions need to come from individuals with a human profile – and not ‘thanks for your feedback, best regards, THE COMPANY’

The real power however, comes from what we can all do as individuals who work within the industry.

Several years ago, before the birth of the ‘social web’, I witnessed the launch of a programme that encouraged pharma employees to respond positively and defend their industry in the face of outside criticism.  Employees were armed with industry fact books, in order to go out into their social sphere and try to put the record straight whenever their industry was criticised.  The idea being, that we need to defend our industry’s reputation, as individuals, and this will spread through word of mouth.  It was well received and I think most companies would encourage this positive pride in what we do.

Now the world has changed, why are companies not evolving this idea and advocating their employees spread the positive side of what we do and enter into dialogue, within their own online social networks?

But what about the legal issues?  Someone could get misquoted, say something flippant and it be taken seriously? Imagine the damage….

I don’t accept this, we need to trust our people and start thinking of the power and positive ripple effect this will have.  This approach will be a lot more efficacious than someone responding to a negative challenge at a dinner party.  The sooner companies encourage their employees to get involved in online discussions related to their industry, the sooner we can mend our broken reputation.   Clearly guidelines may be required but these should be based on common sense and transparent outside of the company.

For the last year I have regularly taken part in the online weekly twitter meeting under the ‘hashtag’ of #HCSMEU, a forum for advancing the online discussion of healthcare by all stakeholders, patients, doctors and even pharma.  There is a good representation from pharma but also patients and clinicians.  A GP can post a negative article about pharma, but I or anyone else can reply.

I noted last week that the lady that hoped ‘social media will kill big pharma’ stepped into the forum.  We had brief online discussion and she even asked me how pharma may be able to support a stand up comedian friend, who has recently recovered from congestive heart failure.  I don’t know if she holds the same views, the point is now whichever side of the debate we are on we have a seat at the table and are having a dialogue.

How can we miss this opportunity?

To conclude, I know its not easy for the industry to make a big change overnight however as individuals we can start making a real difference now.

In terms of communications, I hope the day pharma stops just acting like its saying stuff that matters to patients and actually talking to them on their terms, is fast approaching.

And it is each of our responsibilities to make that happen.



8 thoughts on “Why Pharma needs to stop acting and start talking

  1. Nice article Gary. It illustrates very well a key point that if the conversation is about you, then it’s better to be at the table and listening, even if you don’t like what you’re hearing.

    Companies that behave like ostriches, bury their heads in the sand and try to ignore such voices will quickly find they’re actually dodos!


    1. Thanks Paul – for sure, and even if it is a bridge too far ,yet, for some companies to have corporate blogs and be active in all relevant online discussions the listening process absolutely needs to start (if not already)


    1. Hi John!
      Many thanks for the comment and article link – and interesting that progress has been slow to date, but hopefully we are at a tipping point! I absolutely agree any ‘corporate’ blog has to be written by ‘real’ people at the coal face with stories that capture the imagination, rather than a series of official press releases.
      Thanks for the best wishes


  2. HI Gary, What a great article. I’m relatively new to the Pharma and Healthcare sector but I’ve done a lot of SM Marketing across other sectors. I’ve been so surprised by the lack of activity and almost apathy to SM. I actually find it exciting though as change is challenging but I’m happy to help organisations make that transition. As you’ve said the first step is to listen and then form an engagement strategy. The good thing is that there are lots of great case studies and examples from where other sectors have done it well and seen success. Look forward to future posts.


    1. Thanks Lorna! I have just moved from inside Pharma to outside in a consultancy role, which is exciting. Many pharma co’s are at different stages of interest and adoption, but it really seems there is a real appetite to roll up sleeves and get stuck in, in terms of trying new things. The challenge is often, allowing comments/dialogue with patients/public due to perceived (often not real) regulatory barriers and internal set up / resourcing. Again things seem to be moving but its definitely evolution rather than revolution. All the best, G


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