PUBLIC RELATIONS: How to target the informed patient - An EC move could allow drugs firms to market direct to consumers, writes Mary Cowlett

Pharmaceuticals marketing has always been about talking to the

middle man - the medics, the managers, the third-party endorsers, thanks

to statutory regulation. But with the availability of healthcare

information on the internet, there is a growing requirement for

manufacturers to address consumers directly.



In a move that recognises the changing environment, the European

Commission has adopted a trial period of DTC (direct to consumer)

advertising across three chronic disease areas - asthma, diabetes and

HIV/AIDS.



This means that pharma companies may soon be allowed to enter into

dialogue with patients seeking information on the internet.



"At the moment, legislation is behind the reality," says Gloria Gibbons,

director of healthcare PR specialist the Shire Hall Group. "The internet

is changing everything and the consumer now has access to a global forum

of opinions and information."



Indeed, while the companies are restricted in how they promote their

drugs online, anyone can post up inaccurate or even downright dangerous

information on the net, and anyone can tap into that information from

overseas. "You can even find sites that list ongoing drug trials, so if

you can't get the treatment you want on the NHS, then you can nominate

yourself for the appropriate trial," adds Gibbons.



If this is the case, allowing the real - often local - experts on

products and services to have a voice on the web could actually do

everyone a favour.



Patient power



The internet is not the only driver of patient power. Scare stories, the

furore about NHS funding, postcode prescribing and payment for treatment

have all contributed to patients taking more responsibility for their

health.



"The change really came with AIDS in the mid-80s, which primarily

affected a group that was self-confident, affluent, educated and used to

being empowered," says Carolyn Paul, international business director,

health at Edelman PR Worldwide.



Today, HIV/AIDS activists give PR support and training to other advocacy

groups. And for the industry, working with such groups can prove to be a

powerful communications tool. By building mutually beneficial

partnerships, a tightly focused target audience can be delivered on a

plate.



"Over the past 12 months, we've done an umbrella education campaign

called 'We Can' with the British Epilepsy Association (BEA) on behalf of

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)," says Jennie Talman, managing director of the

Chandler Chicco Agency.



The agency created a collection of writings from women with epilepsy,

while GSK partnered with BEA and Superdrug on a project called Get

Ahead, fronted by actress Patsy Palmer, which targeted teenage girls.

This campaign identified women with epilepsy and worked to help them

make informed choices about their treatment.



Beware of propaganda



However, as Paul Copp, director of healthcare at Nexus Choat Public

Relations, warns: "Many things motivate patient groups and key opinion

leaders but, above all, credibility comes into the equation and it is

never sacrificed.



The media, opinion leaders and those in professional and patient groups

are not fools, and they will all recognise blatant propaganda."



Indeed, patient groups are quick to stress that pharma companies are

welcome to fund aspects of their work, but they would never endorse a

particular firm or product.



"As an independent organisation, we work with companies collectively, as

the person affected by asthma is our key priority," says Philippa

Cowley-Thwaites, head of communications for the National Asthma

Campaign.



But as the pharma industry seeks to address the issue of patient

compliance, full-service PR agencies are responding by integrating their

communication disciplines. Hill & Knowlton, Countrywide Porter Novelli

and Edelman have all married their ethical healthcare skills with their

brand-building expertise to create formal consumer healthcare

offers.



Likewise, a new breed of consumer PR agencies, targeted specifically at

the pharma industry, has sprung up, such as Kinetic, set up by Karen

Moyse last year. "The opportunity is to combine knowledge of consumer

marketing with an understanding of healthcare marketing," she says.



But with regulation still a huge barrier to direct contact with

consumers, pharma companies are in virgin territory. As Moyse says: "It

will not work simply applying straight consumer-marketing techniques to

the sector.



Health marketing has its own specific needs, so you need a knowledge of

both areas."



SONATA INSOMNIA TREATMENT



Last Summer, Lundbeck & Wyeth Laboratories launched Sonata, a treatment

for insomnia, designed for short-term use by those who have difficulty

falling asleep.



Research suggested that although insomnia was seen as a widespread

problem, it was not considered a serious medical condition.



To raise awareness of insomnia as a medically significant and treatable

condition, while increasing GP presentations from patients with sleep

disorders, healthcare PR specialist Shire Hall Communications instigated

a media campaign. This involved consulting key opinion leaders and

journalist advisory panels, while using a Gallup sleeping-difficulty

survey to create newsworthy interest among the general public and the

medical profession.



Also, consumer and healthcare journalists were invited to the University

of Surrey Sleep Unit, where their own sleep patterns and sleep

efficiency were analysed.



This resulted in wide-spread interest from the healthcare and consumer

media including GP, Practice Nurse, the Daily Mail, The Telegraph and

The Times.



"The quality and quantity of coverage across a diverse range of

broadcast and published media totally exceeded our expectations," says

Rod While, group product manager (neurology) for Lundbeck & Wyeth, who

adds that sales were equally impressive.



TALKING DRUGS



- Analyse the business potential of a consumer campaign to determine if

your product is suitable.



- Don't assume you understand your consumers. Find out who they are, and

their rational and emotional drivers. Test your messages.



- Adapt consumer-branding principles and techniques. You must have a

clear proposition to motivate action.



- Get the language right. You're not talking to doctors.



- Identify lifestage triggers and issues that can become part of your

product proposition and help you differentiate.



- Don't rely on pharmaceutical communications specialists to produce a

consumer strategy.



- Build your own credibility through people your consumers trust.



- Analyse the doctor/patient conversation and support it.



- Set budget levels that allow consistent communication plus impact.



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