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Dear Pharma: Does Social Media Know Your Story?

Dear Pharma: Does Social Media Know Your Story?

You hear a lot of people circulating the accusation that big pharmaceutical companies would rather treat cancer than cure it, these days.

This burns my heart a little, and I’ll tell you why.

It actually wasn’t so long ago that the pharmaceutical industry itself was considered among the most respected industries out there1. And while far from perfect, the industry to this day continues to play a major role in the discovery and development of new medicines and alternative treatments. But its reputation is tarnished. Downtrodden. Disdained. We leave our seats and mute our TVs during pharmaceutical commercials. Sneer at the brand names when we see them in the news because of another scandal, or failed product launch, or mass layoff.


But as a marketer, perhaps my perspective is different. I see this reputational decline from a context of knowing that roughly two-thirds of the audience’s willingness to say something positive about a company is influenced by their perception of that company.  It’s only influenced one-third by what they think of its actual products or services4.

Think about that for a second.

For brands in the pharmaceutical sector, the whole of our society’s perception of these companies is influenced primarily by the diverse and vast array professional media content (through print, TV, radio and online) and the internet (blogs, social media, video) that showcases them. Other prominent voices to the conversation include trade bodies (such as the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations and the Biotechnology Industry Organization), regulatory and government agencies (such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Justice), professional bodies (such as the American Medical Association), patient advocacy groups, and lawyers representing patients4. That’s A LOT of noise to parse and intellectually stew, especially from a consumer perspective (who also happens to be the patient).

Not to mention, according to Alexander Brigham and Stefan Linssen of the consulting firm Ethisphere Institute2, over the past three decades, the percentage of a company’s value attributable to tangible assets dropped dramatically from 90% to just 25%. Other estimates2, 3 also suggest that the intangible assets of a company (including its reputation) represent as much as 40–60% of said corporation’s market capitalization.

Which means a company’s reputation is among its most valuable assets.

Now I’m just a simple marketer, and I believe the whole is the sum of its parts – but the whole is not truly indicative of the story those parts tell. A perfect example currently being that big pharma is to blame for the stratospheric costs of healthcare — particularly in the United States. While according to a series of surveys conducted by USA Today, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health – pharmaceutical products themselves actually only account for about 10% of all money spent on healthcare in the US6. And while most industry critics will clamour that pharma brands should work in conjunction with the developing worlds to provide medicines that are  more cost-effective in meeting their needs simply don’t know the broad extent to which Pharma is already doing so. If you check the website of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA), you’ll find a incredible jaw dropping array of investments, initiatives, and organizations dedicated to finding cures for diseases that plague the developing world (most of which don’t even exist in the United States, thanks to pharma).  Many of these efforts are even aided by partnerships with the Gates Foundation, UNICEF and the WHO (to name a few)5.


But still…industry critics often dismiss these efforts as attempts to generate good PR and airtime.

The story is wrong. Pharma reflects (if not highlights) the social responsibilities of the hundreds of thousands of people who work in the industry of science and medicine. All the scientists, researchers, medical professionals, specialists, and developers whose hard work and passion for discovering new and innovative ways to treat new and existing diseases seem to go unlooked. They didn’t get into the pharmaceutical industry “for the money” – drugs take time, effort, research, and (go figure) money to create, test, regulate, and distribute. And these efforts benefit some of the neediest people in the world!

Even more so, the pharmaceutical industry has continuously dominated the top of the charts in charitable donations, and has done an incredible amount of work to alleviate pain and suffering across diverse segments of the world. Yet it continues to be the whipping boy of present and aspiring politicians, press, and online vitriol6. Its reputation continues to stagger, and sometimes trip on the inevitability of human error, and inability to adapt.

This isn’t because pharma isn’t tell us the whole story; it’s because pharma isn’t telling us the parts of the story that matter.

The dedication, enthusiasm, and commitment to enhancing the health is the kind of positive imagery big pharma needs. The transparency and education that promotes greater awareness and understanding of the trials and tribulations of drug development; the successes and innovation that goes into the solutions they discover; the constant battle against the evolution of new and troubling diseases; their involvement in developing countries and the ability to weed out region-specific diseases that increase the health of our global community, etc etc.

Big pharma doesn’t have a reputation problem so much as they have a problem with telling their story.

And I think it’s about time patients and consumers gave them credence for the stories that aren’t being told.

It’s time to stop judging them for the exception instead of the rule.

Christopher Warden

  1. Harris Interactive. The Harris Poll 2013 RQ. Summary Report. (Harris Interactive, Rochester, NY, February 2013) https://www.harrisinteractive.com/vault/2013%20RQ%20Summary%20Report%20FINAL.pdf
  2. Brigham, A.F. & Linssen, S. Your brand reputational value is irreplaceable. Protect it! Forbeshttp://www.forbes.com/2010/02/01/brand-reputation-value-leadership-managing-ethisphere.html (February 1, 2010)
  3. Gaines-Ross, L. Corporate Reputation. 12 Steps to Safeguarding and Recovering Reputation. (John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ, 2008).
  4. http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v32/n10/full/nbt.3036.html
  5. http://www.forbes.com/sites/johnlamattina/2013/05/06/even-pharmas-good-deeds-are-criticized/#710ad1f48aab
  6. http://www.rxcomms.com/archives/the-pharmaceutical-industry-some-good-news-to-tell-but-not-always-told-well/
Christopher Warden

Chris is CEO and Founder of Liquid Lock Media, where he specializes in paid social, community, and persona development solutions for healthcare and biotech brands

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