Ken Rabin, PhD

I have been counseling pharmaceutical and other healthcare brand managers about public relations for 35 years. And while brand managers today are much more sophisticated and analytic than they were back in the 70s and 80s, I continue to be at least a bit dismayed about the way they perceive public relations and how it fits into the product marketing mix.

Perhaps what follows are the musings of a public relations person who is past his prime and ready for whatever ultimate fate awaits people who do what I do for a living, but the biggest mistakes I still see healthcare brand managers make about PR are as follows:

  1.      Bringing the PR Consultant in too late
  2.      Failing to accept that all products (and companies) are flawed
  3.      Underestimating the power of patients
  4.      Stinting on evaluating the impact of PR on audiences
  5.      Assuming that PR is a commodity

Bringing PR in too Late

This problem takes two forms. The first is not asking PR to the table early on to troubleshoot the potential flaws in a marketing campaign, the kind of things like inadvertently inappropriate images or language that can turn customers, patients or journalists against the brand and even the company as a whole. PR consultants add value in this context because they are trained to look at marketing communications through the eyes of the intended audiences. As a result, they can also provide valuable help to market researchers by spotting the unasked question, or assessing how representative a marketing survey population really is.

The second aspect of this problem occurs when brand managers  present PR with a “fait accompli” and then ask the PR people to “put some spin on it” and attract media publicity after the fact. This happens often with satellite symposia, which could gain broader impact if they were structured upfront with newsworthiness in mind, in everything from the titles of the presentations, to the media savvy of the presenters involved. It also happens when a brand is deciding to support a third party activity to promote disease awareness or help raise funds for research. I have found that PR can often find ways to enhance the visibility of what are often very substantial brand investments, but only if they are asked to the table when the negotiations are taking place.

Failing to Accept Product (or Company) Flaws

I have been encouraged that a number of brand managers in recent years have begun to ask their PR consultants to develop scenarios, strategies and responses to manage potential negative developments that could affect their products. Nonetheless, I think that most brand managers still (as I suspect they must) view their products and companies through rose-colored glasses. Good PR consultants as a rule do not take so optimistic a view.

My favorite recent example of this problem was a product brief from a company that claimed it had not just an established presence but a fairly vibrant tradition of innovation in the disease area under consideration. Unfortunately, anyone who Googled this company’s prior history in this product category would learn of its rather checkered history of exaggerated claims, withheld clinical data, and bloated consulting fees. Were the brand managers who prepared this brief new or naïve?  And how does a PR consultant respond to a brief like this with a proposal that is both honest and workable?

Underestimating Patient Power

Most healthcare brands and companies have grown considerably in sophistication in patient group relations over the span of my career. The HIV/AIDS and breast cancer revolutions saw to that. But what I have found lately is that while almost everyone now understands that it is politically correct to support patient rights (and even to put patients on the government advisory committees that review new drug applications), the capacity to underestimate or slight patients remains.

Visitors to the most recent ESMO/ECCO European Cancer Congress in Amsterdam were welcomed by a huge banner that said “Putting Patients First”. Unfortunately, due to Dutch law and the complicity of the conference organizers and commercial brand sponsors, the many patient groups that had come to exhibit at this meeting were confined to a separate, dark and distant exhibition area and denied access to the commercial exhibition area. Happily, the patient groups organized themselves into a spirited protest and submitted a rather pointed protest letter to all involved.

Thanks to social media in particular, patients today have far more weapons to use to attract public attention to the issues that matter to them (many of which involve access to innovative healthcare products). Today’s brand managers really need to seek and listen to creative advice from their PR consultants on how to leverage this opportunity appropriately.

Stinting on PR Evaluation

PR can be evaluated, but most assuredly this evaluation should not be restricted to the old advertising equivalence numbers that brand managers and PR consultants both deplore and refuse to be weaned from.

Nor are we as PR people helped by the fact that the healthcare trade media environment continues to be rife with publications (traditional and on-line) that sell “news release placement” as a fringe benefit of an advertising space buy. This practice inevitably denigrates the value of editorial placements in the minds of brand managers, and further adds to the dilemma of PR evaluation.

Healthcare brand managers are going to have to accept that meaningful PR evaluation requires investing in pre- and post- measurement of audience awareness and attitudes towards their brands and brand messages. And PR consultants (who understand the conundrum that such research is often as expensive as implementing the communications activities that are being evaluated) are going to have stand firm on this subject. The answer, I suspect, is searching for better integrated ways to evaluate the whole brand communication program, methodologies that are sensitive enough to distinguish the impact of PR from that of advertising, commercial exhibits and direct selling.

Assuming that PR is a Commodity

It is by now a fact of life that healthcare brand management includes a purchasing and procurement component designed to blend consulting fees and otherwise control PR costs. It is equally a fact of life that the large communications conglomerates that now own a substantial percentage of the world’s PR agencies will happily sell the services of those consultancies to healthcare brand managers and procurement managers as an add-on (or worse still, a throw-in) to whatever advertising, creative and media buying services that brand management wants to purchase.

I know that the procurement process cannot be avoided, but I am heartened by the fact that conglomerated, pre-packaged, sterilized healthcare PR can be avoided if brand managers choose to do so.

The fact that there are still so many smart and agile independent healthcare PR agencies in each market is strong testimony that there are more than a few brand managers out there who think that PR is a unique communications function, and that PR consultants should be selected on their individual merits relative to the brand’s needs in a specific market.

That’s why I work here.

Ken Rabin, PhD, is an international expert in health communications. From his base in Poland, he currently holds the title of Senior Consultant at GLOBALHealthPR partner Alfa Communications.