Failure to communicate

In the classic 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman earns the respect of his fellow chain-gang prisoners by refusing to stay down after being beaten to a pulp. It's an important moment in the film because it rallies a sense of community among the prisoners and demonstrates that Luke won't be bowed by any form of oppression.

I thought about that scene recently while pondering the continued beating the pharma industry has been taking in public opinion. For the most part, pharma has turned the other cheek and tried to go quietly on its way, ignoring the critics who interpret every action, utterance and silence as a greed-driven strategy for concealing illegal or unethical activity. Once negative opinion is widespread and internalized, how do you get up out of the dirt and fight back?

Education is a necessary first step in regaining public trust and regard. Most companies already provide various forms of public education, targeting both the medical community and consumers who have an interest in specific disorders and treatments. Historically, much of this information was branded, at least with the corporate identity, leaving it open to charges of self-interest.

Many companies are now investing in unbranded disease-state education. An obstacle for marketers is the maxim that disease awareness programs mostly benefit market leaders. Why help the competition? Perhaps a better question is why not help the public understand disorders more thoroughly so they can detect and diagnose illness sooner, assess their treatment options, begin therapy earlier and have better outcomes?

PhRMA recently united its members' diverse interests behind a national health-education campaign on cancer awareness. Perhaps each company in a given drug category could allocate a tiny percentage of its sales—proportionate to its category market share so no one gets an unfair advantage—to a joint fund administered by a group such as the AMA and devoted to truly unbranded and unbiased disease education and/or disease screening. Imagine a fleet of pharma vans offering blood glucose, lipid, PSA, hypertension or breast cancer screenings. They would raise awareness and get patients to see their docs, where the drug companies could fight it out for who gets the scripts.   

Another approach to education is providing comprehensive materials on all drugs a company sells and unbranded info on the conditions those drugs treat. Step up distribution of these materials, posting them on corporate and partner sites, sharing them with advocacy groups, actively offering them traditional and Internet-based media, and making sure they're picked up by all major search engines.

Share the industry's many success stories, some of which are as close to miracles as most of us will ever come—as recently suggested by Charlotte Beers—who urged pharma to market brand experiences as vigorously as products and stop being treated as a “whipping boy.”

Which brings us back to Luke. Technically, he lost the fight. But because he wouldn't stay down, he was the victor. No matter how we go about rebuilding the industry's damaged image, it's a sure bet that standing up to pharma's critics and demonstrating the good the industry does will be a critical part of any effective strategy.

Dale Taylor is CEO of AbelsonTaylor

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