There’s no pill to cure bad PR — particularly when it’s deserved

Motley Fool has an interesting take on the public’s current perceptions of the pharmaceutical industry — and the reasons behind those perceptions:

Is there a pill to cure bad PR? Not that I know of, but the health-care industry, and pharma in particular, could certainly use one. The sharply rising cost of prescription drugs makes pharma look bad. Consumers don’t care that research and development costs megabucks and that companies only have a limited time to recoup those costs before a drug begins to experience generic competition. All they see is the hit to their pocketbook.

Direct-to-consumer advertisements don’t make things better. Companies run them because they work, but the ads aren’t exactly public relations-friendly, because they flaunt the fact that pharma is making money off of customers’ illnesses. The worst part is that life-saving drugs, like cancer treatments from Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) or Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY), where the companies might be able to score some brownie points for saving lives, typically don’t have direct-to-consumer advertisements, because ads targeted to doctors are more effective.

Sorry, but I can’t feel sorry for Big Pharma’s plight — and can’t buy into the Fool’s logic, either.

Here’s why:

  • The problem with direct-to-consumer ads is not, as the Fool suggests, that they remind people that drug companies make money. The problem is that Big Pharma spends more on these ads than it does on ALL of its research and development combined. So is R&D really what’s driving up drug costs? As a brief history lesson, direct-to-consumer advertising was only made legal in the U.S. after much Big Pharma lobbying (read: palm-greasing). Even today, direct-to-consumer advertising is only legal in one other developed country: New Zealand.
  • The problem with R&D is not that it costs “megabucks” to produce life-saving new drugs, as the Fool suggests. It’s that the bulk of R&D dollars are devoted not to creating innovative new drugs, but to creating dubious “enhancements” to existing blockbuster drugs in order to extend patent protections. Big Pharma R&D today is the equivalent of navel-gazing — it’s completely inward-looking. It’s focused on gaming the FDA and boosting financial statements, not solving the world’s health problems.
  • The problem with patents is not that the public doesn’t understand that Big Pharma needs this monopoly protection to “recoup their costs,” as the Fool suggests. It’s that Big Pharma has used these government-awarded monopolies to generate profit margins that would make Exxon Mobil blush.

So, will Big Pharma ever acknowledge these “PR” issues and attempt to honestly address them? I doubt it.

The myopic culture at Pfizer, Glaxo and the other big pharmaceutical companies is no different from that at AIG or GM, where executives can’t understand why people should be upset that they are paying out billions in bonuses, millions to remodel the CEO suite, or thousands to fly private jets to Washington ask Congress for money.

If you want to know what Big Pharma thinks of its bad PR, look no further than this video featuring Ray Kerins, Pfizer’s global PR chief (pictured above.) As John Mack at the Pharma Marketing Blog summarizes Kerins’ perspective:

Kerins finds it incredible that despite making products designed to save lives and cure diseases, the drug industry enjoys such low esteem among the public. “How in the hell do we have such a bad reputation?” was his way of expressing it. “It makes no sense.”

Well, he doesn’t answer that question directly — at least not in this short video clip — although he blames pharma PR people for not wining and dining journalists enough, which is traditionally what PR is all about.

That’s right — Big Pharma’s best idea for fixing its bad PR is to wine and dine journalists in the same way they wine and dine doctors with their army of pharma cheerleaders.

Oh, brother.

John proceeds to explain what he thinks the real PR problem is — and offers some ideas for improving the industry’s image:

Speaking as a consumer — the end user of pharmaceutical products — I say that pharma doesn’t do enough to “engage and educate” me. More than that, I hate to see that some people cannot afford drugs and I hate it when pharma tries to keep drug prices high — as, for example, when it prevented Medicare from being able to negotiate prices as part of the Part D program.

Pharma needs to give some free lunches to us consumers — more discounts on co-pays, for example. Expand its Patient Assistance Programs to include unemployed people. That sort of thing. In other words, do more to help Americans get through these harsh economic times and THEN wine and dine the journalists — better yet, blog about it!

Some good recommendations — but don’t hold your breath, John.

About Cary Byrd

eDrugSearch founder, Cary Byrd, has been called an “e-health innovator” by MarketIntellNow, interviewed by top pharmaceutical industry journalists, invited to Matthew Holt’s Health 2.0 Conference and a Consumer Report's health summit, and highlighted on numerous health blogs.

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