A Message About Messages

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A Message About Messages
Paul Oestreicher

Dr. Marijn Dekkers, CEO of Bayer, feels underappreciated. He has some good reason. At Bayer's Spring Financial News Conference (on February 28), he said, "Almost every day, newspapers publish something about cancer—statistics, the best doctors, the best hospitals, the best treatments." Yet, they don't discuss "the molecule, the invention or the scientist behind the invention without which the doctors, hospitals and treatments could not help patients."

People go into a hospital, they interact with health care providers but what they see mostly from the pharmaceutical industry is a little, unimpressive looking pill. This isn't new. Low trust and reputation scores have been a fact of life for decades now. The anger over high prices and low transparency has not been offset by improved health outcomes or the positive impact on jobs and the economy. Dr. Dekkers said, "I feel that this lack of appreciation for our ideas and innovations has to change."

More credit ought to be given to the investments and inventions made by the biopharmaceutical sector—no question. But placing responsibility on the media for a perceived lack of fairness seems misplaced. The healthcare industry is attempting to meet the needs of its customers and so is the news media. In most cases, they're selling a story with a point of view because that's what the market is telling them to do. And they're constrained further by the revolution in social media. There are fewer and fewer “real” journalists, professionals with credentials who have an understanding of the issues and the science. How many health and science sections in major daily newspapers can you count have survived? Can you get beyond one hand?

Today's reality is health care is covered largely in the business sections and the industry feeds right into it. The first two-thirds of Dr. Dekkers's talk was focused on his company's impressive financial results. It was, after all, a financial news conference. But if getting a fair shake by the press was of such concern, perhaps he should have allowed his CFO, who was the next speaker anyway, to discuss all the numbers.

Next time, Dr. Dekkers may wish to lead off with and stick to some of his briefly mentioned closing messages—Bayer's commitments to sustainability, ethics, access, value and serving the needs of the patient community. As messengers, as leaders, the tone should be set using the words, images and emotions that best communicate the industry's contributions, not just the spreadsheets and stock charts. Tell the audiences what's in it for them.

But there's still a big missing piece to this communication puzzle. Dr. Dekkers pointed out, “Even the most outstanding ideas and scientific breakthroughs have no chance if people do not accept, appreciate and support them. All too often, people are afraid of—or uneasy about—new ideas, inventions, processes or products.” Indeed, the industry's stakeholders must have a higher level of health and science literacy. Dropping information—even crucial or compelling data—onto the heads of an unprepared public, or expecting a response to another “call to action,” is unproductive and unrealistic. A massive, sustained education effort is needed to help turn the ship of disbelief and discontent.

Of course, a more knowledgeable public will not guarantee an enhanced corporate reputation. It must be earned. It will take time, and the self-inflicted wounds—the reputation-killing missteps and misdeeds—need to stop or at least be minimized. Our job as strategic communicators is to help find common ground and common language, increase mutual understanding and secure the win-wins we know are out there.


Paul Oestreicher, Ph.D. is a veteran of both agency and corporate public relations/public affairs groups. He now runs Oestreicher Communications, LLC and is an Adjunct Professor at NYU's M.S. Program in Public Relations & Corporate Communication. Paul is the author of Camelot, Inc.: Leadership and Management Insights from King Arthur and the Round Table. You can follow him on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

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