Big Pharma's image problem

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Thanks in large part to the North American opioid crisis, Big Pharma is taking a serious reputational hit. In the U.S., there has been a surge of opioid-related lawsuits in recent months against well-known pharmaceutical companies and the leaders of those firms, as well as retail pharmacies and dispensaries.

Rightly or wrongly, consumers increasingly distrust drug companies, even as those same companies spend billions to discover and market the medications that are dramatically improving and extending our lives. Some have even compared Big Pharma’s opioid woes to Big Tobacco’s in the 1980s and ‘90s.

How can drug companies in every sector of the industry grapple with a distrustful public, especially in Canada, with its tough restrictions on drug advertising?

We believe localization is first and foremost a critical communications strategy for any pharmaceutical company. It’s crucial that firms know their specific markets, and share that knowledge with sales and marketing teams, as well as with the public when possible and appropriate. The health concerns of people in British Columbia amid wildfire season are going to be very different from those in central Canada dealing with flood-related mould issues, to name just one example. What is your company doing to understand those local issues, and to build bridges with health-care providers with specific needs and concerns based on their local circumstances? Are your firm’s country leaders visible as experts when these issues are prominently in the media?

Another challenge for Canada is American neglect. Some feel U.S. pharmaceutical companies snub their Canadian subsidiaries because Canada is such a small market relative to America’s. Canadian companies therefore receive scant marketing materials, communications strategies and crisis management help. There’s also a feeling that Americans don’t understand the Canadian health-care system and how it works.

A firm like Provident, with team members with extensive experience in Canada-U.S. relations and expertise in highly regulated industries, can provide strategic communications counsel as well as a data-based, first-hand analysis of the Canadian market. Those can then be translated into a comprehensive communications strategy or an executive visibility campaign across areas such as PR, speaking opportunities and owned thought leadership.

Big Pharma leaders who communicate openly and honestly about their industry, its aspirations and plans, and the impact that their products have on average people, stand to position themselves as thought leaders and earn what we would call a “trust premium” as a result.

Those who don’t, however, risk the inverse: Being labelled as untrustworthy, absent from the public conversation about health care and opaque to the average Canadian.