The question of public relations versus other marketing
spends is probably a debate that never will go quietly into the night. PR, it
seems, is destined to require continual defense and explanation, even as the
discipline gains recognition as a critical component of marketing. Why this is
remains unclear, but perhaps, like the shoemaker whose children have no shoes,
and the architect whose house is in disrepair, we as communicators are simply not
effective at promoting our own industry.
This article takes a broad look at the current state and art
of public relations and specifically focuses on one area of public relations -
healthcare - against the backdrop of key market events and drivers.
To start, there is no denying that the economic downturn -
yes, recession - has impacted our industry, just as it has our corporate
clients. Account losses and reassignments, lay-offs, and reorganizations
thought not widespread, are increasingly being reported.
Strong agency leadership is required to stabilize, and
certainly to grow, billings, and PR budgets are under more scrutiny than ever
In healthcare public relations, the added variables of
regulatory delays and data setbacks are fueling the instability. The lamentable
number of 2007 FDA-approved new molecular entities (17, the lowest
number in 25 years) may well be undercut in 2008. In addition to
outcomes, clinical trial design is under increasing examination; endpoints are
being re-evaluated with the advent of novel, targeted therapies that treat
disease in small populations. As important, the number of developmental
compounds facing discontinuation or delay is affecting budgets and staffing for
many agencies. For the first time in many years, it is a buyer's market, with
many accomplished and experienced public relations professionals facing
Paid vs. Earned Media Trends
A look at how clients are spending their consumer
advertising dollars provides insight into what the future will hold for public
Spend by channel has profoundly changed in recent years, and
the trend is progressive. Early this year, Nielsen reported that, for the 4th
consecutive year, Internet advertising outpaced that of all other channels. In
second place are national magazines, but this sector is facing significant
And network TV and radio, as well as national and local
newspapers, historically a key channel for conveying public relations messages,
the spend continues to decline. Anyone who reads the New York Times in
hard-copy form sees the impact: thinner sections, more prominently placed
This is indeed a cautionary tale for PR practitioners. It
now seems likely that the future media landscape no longer will include printed
newspapers as a venue for message communication. And radio, for so long an
effective and economic channel for delivering PR messages, also faces
unprecedented declines in listenership, share of voice and ad revenues.
So where are ad dollars going? It is no surprise that
Internet spending is up, but the percentage of increase year to year may
online advertising rose 18.9% from 2006 to 2007. The online
medium abounds with opportunities to communicate, educate and influence opinion.
From social networking sites to blogs to online patient advocacy organizations,
public relations has begun to effectively deliver messaging across the
Internet, but healthcare public relations lags behind, due to regulatory
barriers and client reluctance to widely embrace the new medium.
So the trends are clear and present. This is the time to
take a breath and look at what PR can deliver during this challenging time for
marketing. A solid understanding of these factors will inform decision-making
on behalf of clients seeking strategic public relations programming.
PR In the Marketing Mix: What Has and Has Not Changed
Several factors continue to make a case for the economy of PR. First, the ROI
of a PR campaign compared to its advertising counterpart remains unchallenged.
Even the most expensive national public relations campaign is small marketing
peanuts compared to consumer advertising.
And PR can deliver both as part of a fully integrated
campaign or as stand-alone programming in the absence of advertising,
promotion, sampling or any other marketing program.
For pharmaceutical marketing communications,
direct-to-consumer advertising must remain a viable option in the marketing
mix. But criticism of direct-to-consumer advertising is not likely to diminish
2008 and in fact may escalate. Most recently, the House
Committee on Commerce and Energy took up the issue in a May 8th hearing on DTC,
directly challenging the marketers of Vytorin, Procrit and Lipitor to defend
the value and spend. So for marketers putting together their brand budgets, the
major decisions on dollar allocation center on the big-ticket items like
advertising, while PR is the engine that consistently delivers results in
measurable, impactful ways.
The credibility of editorial message delivery also remains
unchallenged, and in fact, has increased with the growth and legitimization of
peer-to-peer communication. The magazine editor's pronouncement must be validated
through reader acceptance; the blog expresses and coalesces opinion around a
In healthcare public relations marketing, the advent of
peer-to-peer empowerment manifests itself in several ways. As patients become
educated consumers of healthcare, the physician no longer dictates treatment in
a vacuum. The interaction requires a dialogue in which the patient may
challenge or question a treatment approach, often presenting information during
the office visit generated by a public relations campaign.
Today, the complex array of players in healthcare delivery
demands that patients play an activist role. From complicated health insurance
company coverage policies to prescription medication directions to the daunting
Medicare Part B application process to navigating clinical trial entry options,
today's healthcare consumers must approach the purchase of any healthcare item
as they would a car, mortgage or other large purchase.
On the physician side, peer-to-peer influence is just as
important in shaping opinion. Sermo, the online physician networking community,
has become instrumental in driving medical opinion through commentary on
practice experiences. Launched in 2006, Sermo has created a new channel for
healthcare companies to engage directly with prescribers. Through real-time
exchange on the latest medical and clinical insights and observations,
physicians aggregate their observations from daily practice and challenge or
corroborate one another's opinions. This new "grand rounds" approach
has accelerated awareness of medical trends and insights on medications,
devices and treatments, which physicians then apply in practice to achieve
better patient outcomes.
As a designated Sermo partner, Rx Mosaic Health has been
able to apply insights drawn from the community discussion to build targeted communication
strategies for clients, achieving highly targeted and measurable results.
So whether the audience is patient or professional, public
relations has the opportunity to shape and deliver content to target audiences
that are seeking and receiving information across new venues, and who, more
than ever, are receptive to content that is credible and meaningful.
Smart PR Programming During a Recession
With all indicators showing that the recession will be with
us through at least 2008 and likely into 2009, public relations practitioners
must be responsive and flexible in meeting client needs.
Campaigns need to be targeted and directly aligned to
audiences, and deliver return-on-investment against agreed-upon metrics. PR
budgets are likely not to grow significantly, but must work just as hard to
All in a day's work for today's public relations