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PR Experts Shed Light On… (Part One)

Questions and Answers signpostThis guest blog post is written by Dave Hochman, and is part one of an interview Dave performed following the 11th Public Relations & Communications Summit in July 2015. 

Dave is the owner of the Red Bank, NJ-based DJH Marketing Communications, Inc. To learn more about Dave, visit, email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @davehochman

After the 11th Public Relations & Communications Summit took place in July, we were fortunate enough to be able to circle back with some of the speakers and panelists and recap the conference with some follow-up questions and discussion points.

We interviewed Daniel J. McIntyre, Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Biogen; Kelly G. Dencker, Senior Vice President and Director of Healthcare at Coyne Public Relations; Wendy Lund, CEO of GCI; and Sumita Ray, Chief Compliance Officer and Associate General Counsel, Head of Healthcare Law at Pharmacyclics.

Q: As pharma companies become less overly cautious in their approach to social media, as was suggested by several panelists, what can you use for guidelines given the lack of clarity from the FDA?

Daniel J. McIntyre: The FDA has said more than once that their guidelines are the same for digital communication as they have been for all communication and generally have held to that. If a communication is within FDA regulations a company should have a fair degree of comfort. In the very rare instances where an online message has been challenged, the FDA’s position is based on content, not channel, and the violation would have taken place whether it was through digital/social media, paper or smoke signal.

Kelly G. Dencker: While the FDA has provided some guidance, there are still many gray areas and some things are not clear that companies need to discuss and assess together. That is why it is important to build policy and best practices internally within your organization, then evaluate risk and determine the best approach for your company. It is also important to determine what platforms make the most sense strategically to be able to deliver the brand/company messaging needed, keeping in mind that many platforms do not allow for fair balance.  

Wendy Lund: The FDA’s draft social guidelines that we do have should still inform initial thinking, as well the established guidelines that we’ve been using for years for other channels. For example, in the materials we develop for clients we always look to ensure we are following regulatory guidance — and the same basic standards follow for social. Looking at other boundary-pushing programs from industry contemporaries is a good start, but be careful not to hold back on a great idea just because it hasn’t been done yet.

Sumita Ray: Pharma companies should not become relaxed in their approach to social media; this is an area that has gained increased scrutiny from the FDA in the past few years and will continue to do so. The FDA has provided a social media guidance that covers many aspects of social media, and has opined that this is an area of scrutiny and industry has asked for further guidance going forward. The FDA will likely continue to scrutinize this area and provide further guidelines as technology continues to advance and social media becomes a bigger platform for pharmaceutical companies.

Q: One quote from the summit was “where we once relied on experts to reach patients we’re now relying on peers to do the same.” Where does the distinction lie between an expert and a peer: is it credentials, experience, influence, etc.?

Daniel J. McIntyre: It’s a combination of factors — a general growing distrust of large institutions, including those responsible for providing healthcare; the democratization of health delivery, through which physicians operate under increasing constraints; the explosion in availability of information to patients and technology that enables mass conversations; exchange of experience; and the emergence of articulate and vocal patient advocates. Credibility of source depends to an increasing degree on how well “expert” commentary reflects the experience of people in their lives and their experience with an illness.

Kelly G. Dencker: We’re finding that today’s patients are looking to their peers within a specific health category for a number of reasons, including information, support and guidance. While there are many people within a specific category like diabetes or multiple sclerosis that have blogs, not all influencers are the same. We find this type of engagement supplements what they get from advocacy groups and the HCPs involved in their care, and plays just as important a role in a patient’s journey.

Wendy Lund: When we think of experts we think of a physician or other healthcare professional who can speak to a condition or therapy based on their experience in treating the condition or prescribing the therapy. But these experts can’t necessarily speak to what it’s like to live with the condition or to be on a therapy. While patients — as well as the caregivers, family and friends who speak for them — may lack the credentials of these experts, their first-hand experiences can carry as much, if not more, weight in helping others seek diagnosis and treatment for their condition. These people are relatable in a way that experts can never be. 

Q: Multichannel marketing (MCM) was prominently discussed at the Summit, however, a 2014 Boston Consulting Group’s MCM benchmarking study found that “no pharmaceutical companies are strongly satisfied with their MCM efforts and that a full 55 percent are either partially or strongly dissatisfied.” What can PR/Comms pros contribute to move companies’ MCM strategies forward? 

Wendy Lund: These numbers are unsurprising, as many industry communicators still feel limited by a lack of clarity on what can be done on these platforms. As communicators we need to continually look for ways to move our clients’ business forward. We should never be satisfied with what has worked in the past if we want to continue to innovate — we need to explore new channels and look at innovative ways to reach often disparate audiences with information that feels relevant and personal to them. The past few years have been a dramatic step forward in how the industry has taken advantage of these platforms, with more advances to come on the horizon as strong executions continue to show a business case for these initiatives.

Kelly G. Dencker: It’s important to first assess a given company’s understanding and comfort of the various channels available. Many marketing managers we have spoken to are frustrated by their company’s lack of guidelines or comfort engaging in social media. From there, it’s critical to understand the patient journey and where they go online for their information and who or what influences them. Without a thorough social listening approach, some brands may go down the road of Facebook, when strategically it’s not the best channel for their target audience.

Q: When it comes to MCM, what advice can you share when it comes to getting buy-in and approval from MLR functions, especially regarding pilot programs and smaller projects?

Daniel J. McIntyre: I believe in the power of easy wins…one of the tenets of Collins & Porras (Build to Last, Good to Great). Try different things, take what your legal and regulatory people will allow, and show results. At some point you also have to be able to take prudent risks.

Sumita Ray: For pilot programs and novel approaches to marketing, it is important to partner closely with regulatory/legal/compliance personnel at your companies, and clients, to ensure that you are following the nuanced rules around appropriate social media and marketing. In an age where there are various types of FDA approvals (full, fast-tracked, breakthrough designation, etc.) it is especially important to ensure that you are in compliance with the various rules and regulations.

Stay Tuned for More!

Check back here next week for the conclusion of Dave’s interview with Daniel, Kelly, Wendy and Sumita. For additional details about ExL’s PR Summit series, visit the website for the 12th Public Relations & Communications Summit, coming in July 2016. Don’t miss the opportunity to meet with more than 150 of pharma’s leading PR and communication professionals! Register now to attend, or sign up to receive more information as we develop our program.

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