Academic journal article Public Relations Journal

Pharmaceuticals: Balancing the Demands of Diverse Publics

Academic journal article Public Relations Journal

Pharmaceuticals: Balancing the Demands of Diverse Publics

Article excerpt

Pharmaceuticals: Balancing the Demands of Diverse Publics

Today's public relations programs for pharmaceuticals must balance the conflicting demands of diverse publics. Practitioners not only need to know how to market, both internally and externally, but how to deal with consumer advocates and government regulators. Image-building campaigns will become increasingly important in the '90s. Self-regulation and the development of "win-win" programs will be required.

Over the past decade, public relations professionals in the pharmaceuticals business learned the language of marketing. More campaigns for new prescription drugs and health care products were aimed directly at consumers. Some of these consumer campaigns, especially those involving celebrity spokespersons, provoked negative reactions from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and some state attorneys general. Congressmen like Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. John Dingle (D-Mich.) are also taking a hard look at pharmaceutical advertising, promotion and public relations. As a result, new and more stringent regulations of pharmaceutical communications are being proposed on several fronts.

Today, more public relations and advertising campaigns urge patients to ask doctors about specific brand-name treatments. While enormously successful as a marketing tactic, this approach can offend physicians and pharmacists, traditionally the first to recommend new drugs to patients. The drug manufacturer is caught between health-conscious patients seeking specific remedies, and professionals who may feel their expertise is being questioned and their credibility undermined.

These and other complex ethical, economic and political issues confront today's pharmaceutical public relations practitioner. Creative campaigns in the '90s will need to balance demands of multinational corporations, private investors, health care professionals, insurance companies, patients, health organizations, government and the general public. Some campaigns will have to anticipate the possibility of regulatory action and be modified accordingly. Others will address the relative benefits of brand name versus generic products. Public relations professionals will be charged with building a positive image for pharmaceutical makers and finding ways to help consumers be wise patients. To accomplish this will require the industry to take a healthy dose of self-regulation.

In the '80s, companies with new or existing drugs needed to bend the sales curve forward because patent protection periods were shrinking fast. Drugs were taking longer to get to market because of federal approval delays, so companies had to achieve sales sooner to beat the arrival of generic competition. Bringing an informed and motivated consumer directly into the prescription recommendation process could help aggressive pharmaceutical companies increase their market share. Patients could be persuaded through consumer advertising to ask doctors about medications made by certain companies to treat allergies, ulcers or arthritis.

Medical journals were becoming cluttered with advertising and were not as effective as they once were in influencing doctors. Because of rising costs, sales representatives made fewer calls on doctors to explain products.

Finally, the "me decade" narcissism of the booming '80s mixed with the articulate statements by numerous health advocates in the media, such as former Surgeon General Koop, and resulted in an explosion of consumer interest in wellness.

In short, patients began asking doctors more questions about disease and its treatment, including medications. Public relations professionals knew they could influence this process and motivate consumer behavior. And, they knew they could do it relatively inexpensively compared to advertising.

An estimated $150 million is spent annually by pharmaceutical companies with outside public relations firms today, according to Marshall Paul, executive vice president, Healthcare Communications, Inc. …

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