Pharma’s Perception Management

An intriguing input-output relationship in the pharma industry has remained baffling, since the last several years, where increasing financial inputs are resulting in diminishing productivity output. More disturbing is, this input-output relationship has now reached a new low, with their individual swings moving in the diametrically opposite directions – as numerous reports of 2019 point out. The deteriorating situation of this magnitude would make many to feel sad, especially those who were or are intimately associated with this industry, for quite a while.

Strikingly, the trend encompasses even the largest – and one of the most influential pharma markets of the world – the United States. Which is why, the subject assumes greater importance. As one can witness today, regardless of the outcome, most American drug companies and their increasingly resourceful trade associations, reportedly, keep unleashing political, non-political and financial capital to influence pharma related policies in different countries. In tandem, they also try to create a favorable public perception in areas of vested interest, in many important markets, including India. These efforts cost money, and tons of it.

This process is not new, though, and was there in the past, as well. It also yielded results at that time, unlike what is happening today. This was mostly because of less public awareness on health-related issues, and a better general perception of the industry. Curiously, despite a sharp diminishing return, the same process is being followed, even today, with a lot more inputs and internal hype. Ironically, the snowballing effect of pharma’s ‘perception challenge’ is now all pervasive. It is visible even in the most market driven and business-friendly countries, like America. They have a requisite talent pool, financial resources and other wherewithal to manage perception – the best possible way. Then why it’s not happening?

To make it happen, I reckon, the core purpose of pharma business should be to delight the patients – more of them – the better. With a similar vision, the drug industry could achieve what it wanted to in the past, also making a good profit, unlike what has been openly expressed in the recent years. This article would, therefore, explore the reasons behind it’s not happening now, through the prism of perception management. However, before examining that, let me give examples of the quantum of financial inputs that the pharma industry constituents are using today to achieve its lobbying goals, vis-a-vis, its declining public perception, as we see in 2019. 

Pharma lobbying expenses are shooting north:

According to the Bloomberg report of January 23, 2019, the main trade group of the pharma industry in America – Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), spent a record high amount of USD 27.5 on lobbying in a single year – 2018. This was quoted from the public disclosure reports. Although this was the highest for PhRMA to date, ‘the pharmaceutical industry has upped its spending over the last few years, as it faces immense pressure over high drug prices from the public, Congress and the Trump administration,’ – the news highlighted.

Another article, published in The Guardian also indicated: ‘Pharmaceutical companies spend far more than any other industry to influence politicians.’ It further added, hundreds of millions of dollars flow to shape laws and policies that keep drug company profits growing. One more article highlights, the wide reach of pharma industry money can be traced among people and groups who are in a position to influence drug policy – think tank that has received funding from a major pharmaceutical lobby, and doctors who accepted payments from drug companies.

Moreover, Kaiser Health News (KHN) analysis also found that such money reaches even patient groups for supporting the industry whenever required. The analysis detected ‘about half of the groups representing patients have received funding from the pharmaceutical industry.’

Globally, the general interest of the public on the affordability of quality drug treatment package that pharma companies offer, is fast increasing. Recognizing this fact, the entire approach of pharma lobbying appears blatantly self-serving.

Whereas pharma’s lobbying output is diving south:

The governments in many countries can now make it out, even when this is done covertly – keeping the so called ‘patient groups’ and ‘doctors’, as mentioned above, in the forefront. As many can clearly decipher the core purpose behind such stealth approaches of pharma players, the productivity or output of pharma lobbying is going south in a bottomless pit, as it were. Still, to reduce stakeholder pressure on drug pricing, its apparently getting more intensive, across the world and particularly in America.

The Bloomberg report of January 23, 2019, captures how this situation, on the contrary, is bringing public, government and opposition leaders together on the reduction of drug prices. The news underscores: ‘One of the few issues that unites President Donald Trump and the Democrats newly in charge of the U.S. House of Representatives is reducing the price of prescription medicine. Both sides will be looking for accomplishments to tout at a time when the pharmaceutical industry has become a target of public ire.’

Regardless of these developments, the age-old pharma lobbying approach remains unchanged. There doesn’t seem to be much visible interest, either, for a radical and innovative ‘perception management’ approach to salvage the situation.

Pharma’s ultimate goal has to change to delighting customers – the best possible way, where the quantum of profit earned will be a measure of customer satisfaction. This is what the management guru Peter Drucker said, long ago. Since, this is not happening, both patients’ and public perception on the industry, is getting from bad to worse, which has been captured in the 2019 Gallup poll.

2019 Gallup Poll: Big pharma sinks to the bottom of U.S. industry rankings:

The September 03, 2019 issue of Gallup carried the headline - Big pharma sinks to the bottom of U.S. industry rankings while announcing ‘American’s Views of U.S. Business, Industry Sectors, 2019.’ Being more specific, it said, ‘The pharmaceutical industry is now the most poorly regarded industry in Americans’ eyes, ranking last on a list of 25 industries that Gallup tests annually.’

Elaborating it further, the author stressed, Americans’ net ratings for the pharmaceutical industry have never been lower since Gallup first polled on industries in 2001. Over the past 19 years, few industries have been rated lower than the pharmaceutical industry’s current – 31 net rating. These include the federal government and the oil and gas, real estate, and automobile industries.

The age-old process of pharma lobbying is not working anymore:

‘Lobbying’ is the term that is more frequently used in the United States and the Western countries. In India, similar campaigns are called ‘Advocacy’, by pharma trade associations. These activities are carried out by concerned individuals or companies, industry associations, paid employees – hired for this purpose, or by any other interested groups. But, everybody’s common goal is primarily aimed at influencing government policies, or mold top influencers’ opinion in favor of business – overtly or covertly.

That traditional mindset of pharma lobbying is no longer working, came to the fore some time back. The October 28, 2016 articles, published in the CNBC, cautioned with a headline – ‘A warning for Big Pharma: Lobbying won’t work anymore.’

The article candidly suggested to big pharma players: ‘If you try to use the same old lobbying and crony networks to get your way, it won’t work. Not anymore. And here’s a special warning call just for Big Pharma: You need to change your public relations and marketing strategies now, or die. The good news is, unlike so many other industries, the drug companies have a very effective way out of this mess.’ Making no bones about it the author said, ‘no industry seems more clueless right now than Big Pharma.’

Acknowledging that: ‘Several reports say the Big Pharma lobbying group known as PhRMA is looking to spend as much as $300 million and pull out lots of other stops in order to defend higher prescription drug costs.’ The paper emphasized: ‘this is a battle the drug giants can’t win.’ This is because: ‘Public and political sentiment against expensive medicines and companies that charge those prices is at a fever pitch.’ This, I reckon, is changing the old paradigm of pharma lobbying.

Managing public perception – the new ballgame to influence policies:

Thus, the bottom line to note, today’s public policies are increasingly driven by public sentiments, their needs, aspirations and demand. Thus, the old, and the virtually counterproductive system of lobbying with lawmakers and some key opinion leaders, often including a few media friends, has to change. Even the covert ways of achieving it, under the guise of some trendy events or seminars, hyped by the best communication and PR professionals, are also not yielding commensurate results.

The first task will, therefore, be to come out of this decade old self-created imbroglio, as the pharma’s topmost head honchos will hopefully realize that the name of today’s  game is ‘managing public perception’ of the pharma industry. This would simultaneously necessitate replacing the self-serving goals with the ones that would delight the customers – genuinely – sans façade of any kind.

Pharma’s reputation to be on par with the tobacco industry?

According to ZS: ‘Recent polls and surveys demonstrate that the pharmaceutical industry’s reputation continues to be plagued by negative perceptions.’ It further adds: ‘Many consumers still consider pharma’s reputation to be on par with the tobacco industry, positioning one product category that treats cancer just above a product category that causes it.’ It appeared in the Aug 01, 2017 issue of ZS, titled ‘Reputation Is Paramount, So What’s Holding Pharma Companies Back?’

Is reputation mostly driven by perception?

The reputation or image of a person, an organization or any industry is generally a matter of perception of individuals, formed based on multiple reasons. As Edward de Bono - Physician, author, and originator of the term lateral thinking had put it – ‘Perception is real even when it is not reality.’ Accepting this dictum, even more profound is what he said further - ‘You can analyze the past, but you need to design the future.’

It’s critical to understand the process of ‘perception,’ as out of so much available information, only some are selectively received, organized and interpreted to develop individual perception. More important is the fact that perceptions often become strong inputs to take individual decisions, actions or to express views.

‘Designing the future’ from the pharma industry perspective:

To design an inclusive model of the pharma industry future, the first requirement will be establishing a ‘true connect’ between the industry and the public, based on the latter’s expectations, aspirations, needs and demands, from the industry. This new process being far from self-serving in nature, needs to be steered by ‘perception management’ experts, based on credible data pool – and not by the gut feelings of the hard-core lobbyists or self-styled advocacy experts.

The reformed industry objective – ‘delight the customers while making money’, will form the core of this new ‘perception management’ model. This would entail fleshing out – step by step, the blueprint of its action plan, while pharma should be seen by all to walk the talk.

Creating a positive perception for pharma:

As described in the book ‘Getting Ahead,’ creating a positive perception would prompt taking four basic steps, each of which will help enhance the current view that others have and improve any negative opinion that exists.

Taking a cue from what the author suggests, the first step is to discern how pharma industry is generally perceived by others. Each and every industry practice affecting its stakeholders, particularly patients, is being observed, analyzed and directly affects how others perceive the industry. The author further adds, ‘inaccurate perceptions show you how easy it is for others to incorrectly perceive you.’

The second step is also equally important, as it involves knowing, without any bias, how the industry is ‘actually’ perceived and why – mainly based on consumer feedback, collected and analyzed on a scientific platform.

The third step may involve an intensive internal brainstorming of scale, to zero-in to how the pharma industry would ‘want’ it to be perceived and capture the same in an easy to understand format for all, after pilot testing it.

And the fourth step is most challenging that will help determine how to replace the current perception with the most desirable one.

Conclusion:

As rising drug prices increasingly becoming a major political and public talking point, pharmaceutical groups in America are, reportedly, splurging heavily to influence public opinion and policy. With a spending of roughly USD 280 million, it featured at the top spot among lobbying spenders in 2018 – - with no other industry coming close. However, when one looks at the outcome of such spending either in the American political sphere or within the government, one can find what even President Trump is saying - ‘One of my greatest priorities is to reduce the price of prescription drugs.’ Similarly, when it comes to the public – the Gallup Poll 2019 points out:‘The pharmaceutical industry is now the most poorly regarded industry in Americans’ eyes, ranking last on a list of 25 industries that Gallup tests annually.’

The old industry practices - “from generating the highest drug costs in the world to spending massive amounts on lobbying politicians to the industry’s role in the U.S. Opioid crisis,” are no longer yielding results, due to a radical change in public perception of the drug industry. Even the most powerful current political personality and one of the most business-friendly politician – President Trump, can’t risk ignoring it.

If at all, the drug industry and its trade associations are trying to mold a favorable public opinion with such heavy spending, those efforts are also not working at all. Pharma’s public image crash comes, as the general population strongly dislike, disapprove or remain indifferent on various drug-related issues or methods and processes that the industry follows to earn huge money – even at the cost of patients’ health interests. As a result, a strong negative perception of pharma is created that often indirectly impacts many policy decisions.

So far, pharma hasn’t succeeded in achieving one of its key lobbying goals by managing public perception, effectively. To make it happen, its predominating self-serving interest, that is progressively alienating the public, must be jettisoned, forthwith. The time is ripe to create a new, strong and sustainable public perception for the industry, even in India, by managing customer perception, while making them feel genuinely delighted with company’s products and service offerings. With these contemporary inputs, conducive government policies facilitating a strong business performance, will surely be the most cherished output.

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

 

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