PR Week PharmaComms Conference 2024

28th March 2024 by Becca Norton

Once again, the PR Week PharmaComms Conference 2024 was jam-packed with insights from the world of pharmaceutical communications.  Here are a few takeaways, which we felt would be interesting and useful to share:

A key theme throughout the day was how communications can play a role in tackling global health challenges. Notably, health literacy, corporate and social responsibility, sustainability and misinformation.

- Health literacy is decreasing despite increased focus on communication initiatives. The key issue here is a lack of engagement.

- Access to medicines is improving, however, there are still barriers when it comes to medicines reaching the patient.

- Companies do such great work in supporting the community but often it goes under the radar and doesn’t help to drive the reputation of pharma. - The volume, complexity and speed of disinformation and misinformation in circulation makes it very difficult to manage or prepare for.

- The volume, complexity and speed of disinformation and misinformation in circulation makes it very difficult to manage or prepare for.

It’s no surprise to hear that collaborative working was a common theme in tackling these issues. The development of genuine partnerships which transform pharma from suppliers to thought leaders and create multiple wins for all parties are the answer. Comms teams can leverage the great work being carried out by sharing best practice and ensuring the benefits for pharma are as clear as those for HCPs and patients. But it’s not just about the great stuff, the small stuff and the challenges are just as important. 

The ABPI website NHS-Industry Partnership Case Studies Library page is a great source of information to tap into with over 100 best practice examples of collaborative working.

Connecting with your audience:

Today’s public, by and large, want facts but human connection is essential. Communications professionals need to use real life examples, anecdotes, humour and simplicity to talk to their audience in a way they understand. Unfortunately, regulatory and compliance restrictions can make this difficult, but there could be opportunities where other stakeholders, such as patient organisations could take on some of this responsibility.

This is also important in building company reputation. Pharma traditionally talks factually but not empathetically. It’s also difficult to measure public opinion or know which audiences to reach out to. There was strong agreement in being clear and confident on the company purpose which you then build everything else around using storytelling to bring it to life. Investors and other relevant stakeholders want to know how a company is making a difference to patients.

Showcasing the patient impact of your diversity and inclusivity initiatives and ensuring CEOs are banging the drum for the industry in this regard can also be very powerful. 

True patient engagement is also difficult. The ABPI have changed the way they work through the delivery of their patient engagement strategy. This consists of the following achievements so far:

- A patient advisory council, representing nearly 400 charities now advises the board directly on topics such as VPAG, NICE and ABPI Code development.

- Patient organisations are now involved in a meaningful way with every policy and campaign.

- Regular collaboration surgeries have helped to create new guidance on collaboration with patients and patient organisations.

- The association has been awarded a ‘PIF TICK’ accreditation for being a ‘Trusted Information Creator’ alongside the NHS.   

Health equity:

There are high expectations on pharma by HCPs to reduce health inequalities.

Companies need to collaborate to be able to make a real impact. Simple awareness campaigns are a good start or initiatives to look at disparities within and between countries to drive solutions. This may mean getting comfortable with uncomfortable topics.

Many successful programmes were presented, including a women’s health campaign with Sport England.  The campaign’s mission was to ensure all girls can enjoy PE given that statistically, many 11-16 year olds weren’t meeting the government's physical activity guidelines. The team worked with PE teachers and students to dig deeper into how barriers such as menstruation, self-consciousness and a lack of empathy by PE teachers could be overcome.

This lead to the development of a successful platform/website ( ‘Studio you’) hosting Netflix-style videos for use by students and in schools. This ongoing initiative has so far shown improvements in terms of inclusion, activity levels, enjoyment and awareness. 37,000 girls were using the platform weekly across over half the schools in England.

Misinformation and disinformation:

Since the pandemic, there has been a staggering amount of misinformation related to vaccines. As much as 50% of information placed on social media at the time was said to have been factually incorrect. The public are also turning to multiple or unlikely sources for medical information such as TikTok for vaccine advice by influencers which may not have been provided by or supported by pharmaceutical companies and health organisations.

Some media sources are publishing up to 800 health-related stories a day, proving that the speed they need to work at doesn’t always support accuracy of information. This makes it very difficult to mitigate or control and the agreement in the room was that some discussions are not worth having. There is also a fine line in to how you can correct misinformation without promoting to the public.

You can however bring your medical, compliance and pharmacovigilance teams together and with the help of a solid social media policy be prepared for likely scenarios such as product shortages or anticipating what might happen from looking at patient-led conversations online.

Moderna in the Asia-pacific region developed a media education programme which provided journalists with in depth information about their technology and public health in order to write in an appropriate and knowledgeable way.

A new role or support function within pharma that could establish itself is a fact checker. This is someone who scans for misinformation and facilitates corrections.

Artificial Intelligence:

The role of AI in pharma is a hot topic at industry congresses. Pharma is dipping it's toes in the water and testing what could be possible, for activities such as:

- Mission statements.

- Slide creation.

- Content first drafts or challenging final versions to find improvements. 

- Personalisation of messaging.

- Summarising documents.

- Interpretation of data.

- Accuracy against branding and style guides.

- Conference abstract selection.

In-house versions of ChatGPT are starting to appear, indicating the industry’s desire to embrace this technology. It’s likely that AI will be a partner rather than a replacement but potentially its use could generate new roles such as writers of prompts and strategies to feed in the information which will get the most out of the technology.

The key pitfalls currently in place include the inability to locate source references, manage copyright requirements, deep fakes, and misinformation. Companies would need to tread carefully, consider authenticity and reputation when moving from testing to using. For now, AI provides real opportunities to try ideas and see where it could add value.

We hope to be back next year to hear more about what is happening in this field.  

For more information on how medDigital can help your Comms team please visit the below links:

Communication strategy

Scientific review and approval of digital materials

Training and education