Show 96 – PharmaComms – Part 1

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The first of two episodes recorded in partnership with PRWeek UK at their PharmaComms conference in London where we chatted with a number of speakers from the event.

1/ Rachel Royall, Communications Director UK Healthcare & Life Sciences, IBM – ‘What does patient-centricity mean for communications?’
2/ Christian Marcoux, Senior Vice President, Global Communications, Ipsen – ‘Corporate Relevance – why relevance is the new reputation’
3/ Avril Fudge, Communications and PR Lead EMENA, Accord Healthcare – ‘Informing and equipping employees to become brand ambassadors’
4/ David Flynn, Head Of External Communications, Roche; Charlotte Davies, Head of Communications, Healthcare, Merck; Kristine Kelly, Head of Communications and Patient Advocacy, UK, Novartis – ‘Innovation and regulation: how to master the balancing act of communications in Pharma’

Produced in partnership with PRWeek UK. For more information, visit www.prweek.com/uk?

Rachel Royall

Our first guest was Rachel Royall, Communications Director for UK Healthcare and Life Sciences at IBM, who took part in a panel session at the conference on the topic of ‘What patient centricity means for communications’.

IBM’s Rachel Royall

Prior to her role at IBM, Rachel spent a good few years across a number of communications roles at London Ambulance Service, the Department of Health, Cabinet Office, and also as an Executive Director for an Acute Hospital Trust. She said that one of the things that working in the NHS absolutely does in all of those different organisations is it gives you a sense of why healthcare, why are you doing it and why is it important? She added that when you work at London Ambulance service and you go with an ambulance crew to visit someone’s home and see their moment of crisis and how the NHS actually helps them, it can make a massive difference. Those memories stay with you for a long time throughout your career. She also said that when you worked for the Department of Health and you’re thinking about and discussing implementing policy, again, having that frontline experience and perspective, being involved at the very heart of the NHS and being very involved in seeing patients walk through hospitals, can really benefit in the advice that you give later on in your career.

For Rachel, one of the key roles for a communications professional is helping to translate what’s going on in the outside world into organisations, and she thinks that sometimes, organisations can be quite insular and can look internally. What she sees as her role in understanding the healthcare landscape and the NHS and how it works, is helping her colleagues within IBM to understand that, helping them to understand how technology can really benefit patients and how that technology can get deployed within the health service to the benefits of patients and what need is it trying to fix. So, as opposed to talking about things from a technology perspective and being very tech focused in how IBM talks about things, trying to help the organisation to understand how that might be perceived from the public’s point of view or from the workforce, so from the NHS workforce’s perspective and how it’s going to be implemented once it’s actually in a hospital or where they are working in a Trust or in a GP surgery.

Rachel said that there are three ways that patients can be involved in the ongoing development of technology that a company such as IBM supplies to the healthcare industry.

The first is around governance. Rachel believes that great communication is about leadership. It isn’t just about the communications process but is about how you do business and how you involve patients and how you engage the public in the governance of what you do. For example, at one of the Hospital Trusts she worked at, when they used to look at safety, rather than just have the safety meetings and look at how they needed to improve things just with the clinicians and just with the workforce, they brought patients into those meetings, involving them in the governance of those meetings and in the project meetings. The other big area for technology is user centred design. So, how we involve users in the design process for a new product or for a new service. One of the things Rachel thinks the industry needs to think more about is not just user centred design, but also what information it’s using. Often patients’ information or patients’ data, the users might be academics or they might be researchers. But what is needed is to involve patients in that whole process. And then the third area is around partnerships. Rachel said that they do not operate in a vacuum and so how do you work with the NHS? How do you work with the charity sector or the likes of National Voices.  She said that there are organisations like the Wellcome Trust understanding patient data. So, all of those areas and all of those different aspects of patient and public engagement and involvement are really, really important.

This conference was billed as taking place at a time when communications professionals in the pharmaceutical industry are faced with numerous challenges such as:

  • negative perception of the industry
  • a healthcare system under unprecedented pressure
  • new channels changing the public’s access to healthcare
  • increasing pressure to demonstrate ROI

Rachel said that all of those issues resonated with her and they are part of the reason why many people choose to work in healthcare. She said that healthcare is increasing in demand. Patients have more complex needs. However, she believes that technology can play a huge part in helping to transform that experience for patients. However, both the Pharma industry and healthcare communications isn’t stationary and so she thinks that part of the role of communication professionals is to understand how trends are changing, how things are changing, to listen to those changes, whether positive or negative, and to play them back into the organisation, so that the organisations that they work for can change the way they work or change the way that they operate to respond to the trust challenges that they have. She added that it isn’t just the Pharma industry but the whole of society, whether or not it’s politicians, the media or the public relations industry itself. There is a huge trust crisis going on in society generally. Rachel said that many other industries are probably having exactly the same conversations about what can we do better to build trust, and the best way that we can build trust is to do better business with integrity, following an ethical framework and communicate well and listen to the patients and listen to the citizen.

Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Health Group.

Rachel explained that the CIPR Health Group was set up to try and help provide a service and benefits for communication professionals that work in the health sector – whether or not that charity or Pharma or the NHS – and to try and help support them in terms of and in relation to their professional development. The big campaign that they have been working on last year and that will remain a huge focus for this year is the State of Profession survey that explained that mental health is a huge issue for public relations professionals. Rachel is very much of the view that if they can’t look after the people that are working in the industry, they really need to change what they do and make sure that they have a workforce and have got the best talent and are caring for them in an appropriate and responsible way.

Christian Marcoux

Our second guest was Christian Marcoux, Senior Vice President, Global Communications at the biopharmaceutical group Ipsen who was over for the event from Paris to talk about why corporate relevance is the new reputation.

Christian Marcoux

Chatting with Christian Marcoux

Christian said that relevance is a way to measure what your audiences are saying about you through social listening versus polling.  It provides Ipsen with clear soundproof insights to build upon a communications plan and then really activate their brand.  He said that to be relevant in the pharmaceutical industry takes quite a bit of listening and that relevance is basically where your objectives or your key messaging will match what your audience wants to hear and is looking to. He described it as the intersection between what they want to know, what they want to hear, what they want to learn more about and what you have to tell them. So, it’s matching both groups’ agenda.

Christian joined Ipsen in the summer of 2018 when the group was halfway through a major transformation from solely focusing on consumer healthcare to a biotech. The group was consciously applying two sets of key messages, one internally, one externally with a discrepancy between the two. Externally, it was resonating well with their audience, the financial community, and it was well reflected in the press. But internally, he felt that you couldn’t find the thread that would link everything together and really speak to the employees and other stakeholders externally. So, he commissioned a retrospective relevance study across France, US and the UK, comparing 2018 to 2019, to really figure out what was resonating with who and build their comms around it that was not just based on gut feeling, but that was actually based on data driven insights. What they took out of it was the need to adjust their channel planning and broaden their sets of messaging and narrative so that it impacted people, patients and the business as well and not just reflect the business aspects of what was done with the financial community.

In Ipsen’s case, they were focussing on three therapeutic areas – oncology, neuroscience and rare diseases, and then beyond that, also looked at the financial, HCP and patient communities.  The messages they were looking for were around the transformation journey but the insight they found was that they actually had lost contact with HCPs mainly, who Christian said are super important to Ipsen.   Their next step is to therefore build their 2020 plans out of that data and shift the focus to the patient and HCPs community. Therefore in terms of channel planning, instead of going with their gut to put paid behind the big announcements, the deals, the M&A’s etc., they are investing their paid budget on the items that are ‘less sexy’ or less news driven, so that they maintain a steady news flow and a steady share a voice with their communities.

Avril Fudge

Our third guest was Avril Fudge, Communications and PR Lead for Accord Healthcare, who had just finished speaking about ‘informing and equipping employees to become brand ambassadors’.

Avril Fudge

Chatting with Avril Fudge

This was a topic that was important to Avril as she thinks it’s around equipping our employees to tell your story of a brand. She explained that at Accord, they have quite a mixed base of employees with sites in the UK and EMENA. The company had a major acquisition about three years ago, brining on 800 people in North Devon and so it was about bringing them on the journey with the company.

Avril said that she is really passionate about people and believes that people can help you shape your brand purpose and story, and they should have a voice in an organisation.

Avril said that Accord are one of the fastest growing pharma companies in Europe and have gone from a handful of people a few years ago to over 2000. Due to that growth, there’s lots of different levels of employee engagement and employee motivation with some European sites only having two or three employees compared to North Devon, which is their biggest UK at 800, but they wanted to have a brand that everyone could engage with and take them on the new Accord journey rather than being legacy.

Avril said that it’s important to know that they took compliance with them on the journey right from the outset when binging employees on as brand ambassadors. When they looked to their new brand, they were very conscious that they needed to have compliance as part of that and so they’ve actually employed around 25 different brand ambassadors right across EMENA and the UK with compliance being at the same table and shaping the brand together. She said it had been a challenge, particular on how quickly they could achieve it as people have day jobs. But they are very engaged with the brand. So, compliance has always had a head at their table and were really vital, actually, especially in the early days, with how they could shape what the Accord story was. Added to that, Avril highlighted that they were not talking about products but instead about a corporate brand purpose, which is much more about their behaviours and what they believe in rather than the products they give to patients later on.

In terms of equipping her colleagues for digital communications in this area, Avril thinks you should never underestimate the power of a good guideline and tool kit and policy. She said that you should not assume that because you work in Comms and PR that people are going to understand the guidelines. They therefore sat down with compliance right at the start and really unearthed actually what they wanted to do, what they wanted to say, what they could say, and all of their brand ambassadors were fully trained in the code.

The response has been very positive. Avril though that from the start, they worked really close to their Exec team and didn’t want employees as brand ambassadors that were ‘yes men’. Instead, they wanted people that would challenge – people who were living the brand every day and so they took the people that they really wanted to help them tell their Accord story.

One of the biggest satisfactions that Avril has had is the sense of collaboration that’s come from it. One of their key messages was around ‘One Accord’. She explained that they are not Accord Spain, not Accord Greece and not Accord Barnstaple. They are one company now and they have to behave like that. So, the brand ambassadors were great at just collaborating with the rest of their network and pulling people in that, from a PR and Comms perspective or even from an Exec perspective, they wouldn’t have been able to pull in.

Charlotte Davies, David Flynn and Kristine Kelly

For the final part of the show, we welcomed Charlotte Davies, Head of Communications Healthcare for Merck, David Flynn, Head of Public Relations at Roche, and Kristine Kelly, Head of Communications and Patient Advocacy UK, at Novartis. All three guests had just come off stage from a panel discussion on the topic of ‘innovation and regulation, how to master the balancing act of communications in pharma’.

Kristine Kelly, David Flynn, Charlotte Davies

Chatting with, L-R: Kristine Kelly, David Flynn and Charlotte Davies

Kristine said that a key theme from their session was creating a culture of creativity, but also balancing that with how you execute a very creative campaign within a highly regulated industry. She added that patients like to receive their information in different ways and potentially with different messages. Therefore, the question is how you make sure that whatever creativity and fantastic content you’re developing is actually going to reach the audience that you’re intending to make the impact?

David said that one of the key things to encourage that culture of creativity within pharma is actually to bring people from outside pharma into it, and with them, a different perspective. He added that they have a different way of understanding and engaging with audiences and using their expertise and their questions, bringing them in so they can constantly say, “why don’t we do this? Why don’t we try this?” But at the same time, he said it’s also being very clear in challenging themselves and saying, “actually, there’s a great opportunity here in the sense of, patients, the public and the different stakeholder groups who we want to engage with, the challenge is, we have to be creative. We have to push ourselves more, because otherwise our message is not going to cut through”.

Charlotte agreed. She thinks that one thing that the pharma industry can learn from the consumer world is how very often they’re much better at having a very strong, single minded proposition that’s really rooted in insight. She said that you only have to look at a lot of consumer campaigns in the mainstream to see this, whereas in pharma, quite often they try and say everything. She thinks there’s a real lesson there that actually if they try and focus more on one thing, they can probably say it better. She added that when it comes to the tone of voice and language, often around innovation, Pharma thinks that it’s got to be something really ‘whizzy’. But actually, something as simple as changing your language and talking in a really simple way can be quite innovative. She said that one thing Merck is trying to do is to really look at how they communicate and the language and imagery they use to make the company much more accessible and human to reflect their understanding of the patient. This is something that Charlotte would love to see the whole industry doing more because she thinks it does break down a lot of those barriers. She feels the industry gets lost in its acronyms and heavy language.

Kristine said that if you think about the history of communications in pharmaceuticals, the industry is one of the last to actually think about asking its customers what their experience is like and what they want to have and how they’re interacting with them. However, now it is much more about getting the patient involved, whether that’s getting them to help co-create campaigns or helping them for testing messages out on them or asking them and even getting them involved in clinical trials early, but involving them in that conversation is something that pharma really needs to get better at doing.

Charlotte added the industry is getting much better at actually listening to people and finding out what are the problems that they’re trying to solve and what are the things they’re dealing with on a day to day basis, rather than just going with what they want to say. So, whereas historically they had been quite broadcast focused, now it’s much more of a two-way street. She said that it comes back down to co-creation, which is the way you get that genuine insight and then you could do something meaningful with it that’s truly of benefit.


David said that nowhere in the code does it say you can’t be creative and actually, because there are enough grey areas in the code, sometimes that becomes a cultural thing. He added that it is also about being very clear on what the code refers to because it’s about products. However, beyond products, when you’re talking about wider issues about the company, you can, to a degree, do what you want from a corporate level.

Therefore, David said it is really about looking at the key things and challenging that and then saying: “actually we can do this, we can do that”. He said that within Roche, they are having this culture of transformation because the organisation is wanting to change, and they are almost riding on the back of that. Therefore, he feels that to a degree, his role feels a lot easier than it was two years ago where he was constantly almost trying to break through a barrier, whereas at the moment the barriers are being removed in front of his team and they are keen to do something different. He therefore wants to make sure that creativity is embedded in who they are and what they do.

Kristine said that as an American she comes from a country where there’s a lot of a looser regulation. She said that you pretty much get bombarded with commercials and print ads as soon as you arrive into the US, which is actually one of the reasons she came to the UK to work in healthcare communications because there’s a lot more questioned about what’s appropriate to engage patients with. She used the example of her mother who might see a commercial on TV and doesn’t think twice about taking somebody else’s medicine. Therefore, she sees the regulations are there as a positive to help us think about how we are appropriately engaging with patients and helping them become a better advocate for themselves with their physician. She added that the ABPI is also evolving.

Charlotte also talked about the importance of engaging early with all your internal compliance and medical teams too. She said that we’ve all been there where you have a great idea and then it ends up being so watered down, it’s not really any good anymore! She therefore recommends talking it through early with them and try and problem-solve explaining this is what you want to do – how can you do it? She also encouraged people to know the code inside out, because quite often she’s successfully challenged internally when people have said you can’t do that. She added that there is a big difference between you can’t do it because of the code or just because you perhaps feel you’re not entirely sure about the idea. She therefore encourages people to challenge, because she thinks that if the intent is right, there’s usually a way to find a solution, particularly if it is rooted in genuine insight and you’ve got the support of third parties for an idea.

David said that when Roche ran the LADBible campaign a few years ago internally, a lot of the company said that they can’t do it, but actually it wasn’t due to the code, but instead was about culture. They were eventually able to get the campaign through in the way it was intended at the start and it wasn’t watered down too much and actually, David said that the success of the campaign suddenly opened people’s eyes internally, and the response was “this is all right. We didn’t get a Clause 2, we’re all fine. No one’s running off with their heads on fire within the organisation.” David said that actually now it’s lit a spark with people asking how they do it again and do more of it.

Kristine came back to the point about data and that David had mentioned in their panel session that the reason he wanted to do the LADBible campaign was because he knew from market insights that that was where his customers were going, which David agreed and said that they weren’t doing it for the sake of it.

Kristine added that having that data around your customers and where they go and what they want to hear is really crucial when you’re having those discussions internally.

In terms of taking inspiration from outside the Pharma industry, Kristine said that she used to work in the hospitality industry, and that there was recently an article asking if PR is even needed for restaurants anymore, with the crux of it being that the way that people look for recommendations and who they find as credible is changing. It’s no longer the restaurant reviewers from your local paper or the Michelin guide, there’s a lot more distrust. It’s much more restaurant to customer and even customer to customer. She think it’s an interesting challenge to the way they have all thought about how you do communications and she doesn’t think the pharmaceutical industry is quite there yet but she does think that they are thinking more and more about how they engage the patient or the public directly in a compliant and regulated way to have those discussions, which isn’t just about going through patient groups anymore, as a lot of patients are their own advocates. They are therefore looking at how to start to try to have that one to one conversation.

Online Influencers

Another area that was discussed in their panel session was online influence, which Charlotte said has huge challenges from how much you pay influences, to what kind of adverse event report training you give them. However, the biggest challenge that Charlotte highlighted was about selecting the right people to be your influencers. She said that it comes back to relevance and if they’re the right people that your audience are going to be interested in hearing from, rather than just some random celebrity with no relevance whatsoever. She said it comes back to asking the questions: “Is this the right thing to do? Is it of genuine help to our audience?” She added that the benefit of all the social media challenges and online influences and the things that Pharma are using more and more is that is does come with risk, but they actually have huge benefits to everybody if they are not completely reliant on a third party to search to filter that message for them, and they should be able to control appropriately what they want to say directly.


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