Trust: mission possible?

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Remember when President Bush pulled an iPod from his holster and fired off a few of rounds of his favorite digital tunes to a grateful gaggle of news reporters? Unfortunately, this potentially fabulous PR stunt lost its momentum as soon as the awkwardly cast Bush began his ungainly meander through the highlights of the Presidential play list. Nervously clutching and waving his iPod with little poise or purpose, it was almost as if he had been counting on being able to read the songs from its little menu screen—a sort of pocket auto cue—but that disaster had struck when he had discovered that the text was too tiny to read, or the backlight had timed out, or some other unforeseen problem had emerged, leaving him stranded and exposed.

Of course, the story still attracted a lot of media coverage. In fact, numerous stories poked fun at him for crediting American Pie to Dan McLean (instead of Don) while others suggested he might have pirated Beatles songs, which were not available to download at the time. Bush, however, was far from convincing in his cameo role of a generation-spanning, tech-embracing, regular-guy President.

This story is trivial, but it makes a valid point: that believability and credibility are the foundations for establishing trust and successful communication. This holds true for every organization in every industry.

This issue features our annual PR Report. Historically, the pharmaceutical industry has not been very good at communicating. Many companies are still not very good at it, but in the past couple of years there have been some encouraging signs. Two years ago, our coverage was dominated by crisis communications in the wake of the Cox-2 debacle. Aside from reporting on the damage limitation efforts of Merck and other companies (accompanied by obligatory pictures of perspiring pharma executives testifying at government hearings) we heard a lot of opinions from leaders on all sides of the industry on what pharma needs to do to climb out of its reputation quagmire. And last year we saw some of these ideas in practice, such as the grassroots efforts of GlaxoSmithKline with its Value of Medicine campaign and PhRMA's new proactive stance in representing the industry.

Then last month we named Merck as our All-Star Company of the Year. We were able to make our decision with absolute confidence because of the number of different areas in which Merck had excelled during its remarkable turnaround. This is surely a significant milestone in the efforts to rebuild trust.

However, while pharma's efforts to recognize and fix its problems have been widely acknowledged, there has always remained an underlying skepticism that the reputation crisis—the result of many years of ignorance, poor practices and an inherent failure to identify and communicate with key audiences—is just too big to fix. Well, the latest the Edelman Trust Barometer indicates otherwise, reporting significant inroads in rebuilding industry trust (pages 38-39). Let's hope there's more to come.

I'll leave you with a question to which you must know the answer: Which of the following is the most important target audience for pharmaceutical communicators? Healthcare providers, consumers, insurers, pharmacists, FDA, politicians, advocate groups, mainstream media, trade press, shareholders, analysts or company employees?

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