Healthcare PR & It’s Challenges: Seema Ahuja speaks to Reputation Today

Seema Ahuja, Vice President & Global Head of Communications,

Biocon Limited

How would you evaluate the Healthcare PR opportunity today?

Healthcare PR is a niche area and its landscape is constantly evolving. While it presents several consumer centric engagement options for hospitals and diagnostic brands, it poses several challenges for the prescriptions-driven pharma and life sciences sector. In this dynamic and quick-paced sector, organizations need to have a direct connect with the consumers using various digital platforms. But pharma healthcare players are required to engage with consumers within the regulatory framework, which does not allow pharma companies to indulge in any direct promotion of their products. This is where out-of-the-box ideas for engaging with Prescribers, Payors and Patients become very critical. Companies need to invest in implementing a powerful science-based public relations strategy that positions the organization as a thought leader in the specific domain. PR professionals seeking to make a difference by improving human lives must look at it as an interesting career opportunity.

Healthcare has faced a number of crises. What do practitioners like yourself do to prepare for potential crises?

Crisis Management is a critical aspect of reputation management for all brands. For the Life Sciences sector it becomes even more critical as it deals with Life. A recent survey by Forbes Insights revealed that 88% of more than 300 executives, mostly senior executives and board of directors, were focused explicitly on managing reputational risk as a key business challenge. Another study presented by World Economics showed that companies attribute about 25% of their market value to reputation.

This is because stakeholders today care more about what an organization stands for than what it sells. Today, there is higher scrutiny of organisational behaviour and corporate social responsibility than there was at any point of time before. The advent of social media has also exposed the brands to misdirected activism and trolls who are constantly stirring up negative emotion on various channels targeted at tarnishing the reputation of the brands. As a result reputation management today has become a 24X7 imperative.

I can say from my personal experience in handling crisis situations at several leading Pharma & Life Sciences organizations over the years that prompt and strategic action can not only address crisis but also convert negative buzz to positive sentiment in the public mind space.

Here are the Top 5 Things that organizations need to do to effectively deal with crises.

ANTICIPATE RISKS

 An organization needs to have its ear to the ground to pick up what is being said about it so that it can quickly identify issues and address them before they can become a crisis. In the age of social media, not listening to social chatter or being absent on social communities can have serious repercussions for the brand. Organizations can today employ several ‘listening tools’ for following online conversations and red-flagging potential issues.

BE PREPARED

Organizations should be prepared with a standard operating procedure (SOP) for managing various issues, which should outline the role of key stakeholders during crisis management with the Communications team driving the crisis communication with internal and external stakeholders.

A crisis communication room manned by a cross functional team should monitor the situation. The Communication team should ensure that the messaging is truthful and consistent.

TIMELY ACTION

This is a no-brainer. Timely action can ensure that an organization is able to get into the conversation early in the cycle and shape it in a way that minimizes reputational damage.

BE TRANSPARENT & FACTUAL

During a crisis, it is critical for an organization to be honest and upfront.  If an organization admits to a mistake, apologizes, and acts to correct it, it helps maximize the brand’s credibility. Trying to cover up or project untruths could boomerang and make things worse.

BE HUMANE

During the time of a crisis, an organization needs to show that it cares. By showing its humane side, an organization can build trust and nurture a relationship with its stakeholders that extends beyond the moment of crisis.

A threat to reputation can fast metamorphose into a crisis. So having a tested plan in place to address negative news in a timely and transparent manner will not only help preserve an organization’s reputation, but also demonstrate that it cares about its stakeholders and is willing to do everything in its power to address their concerns and live up to its reputation.

What are the key challenges faced by the Healthcare and Pharma business today?

The global pharma and healthcare landscape has been witnessing big ticket consolidation aimed at business expansion to offset the huge pressure on sales and margins. The entire ecosystem is grappling with the expiration of patents, spiralling costs of innovation yet depleting research pipelines, increasing government pressure to lower drug prices so that healthcare expenses don’t spiral out of the reach of patients in emerging as well the developed markets. The biggest challenge therefore is affordability and access.

Collaborations in the area of discovery and development, manufacturing and commercialization are the new order aimed at accelerating the pace of innovation and time to market in the run up to address unmet patient needs.

How does the in-house communication team manage and navigate regulatory issues? 

A threat to the reputation of an organization if not addressed appropriately can blow up into a crisis and regulatory issues are no different. However, organizations which are strong on compliance and governance do not have much to worry. When regulatory issues crop up it is crucial for the organization to be transparent, specific and straightforward in its communication. We have all seen the huge reputational damage that the Indian pharma sector has undergone due to the onslaught of unfavourable regulatory audits. In the last few years, several Indian pharma companies have received a slew of warnings for failing to meet the US FDA standards after the US regulator increased its scrutiny of local drug makers that have been steadily growing their market share in the US. However, not all of them have been as severe as they have been made to sound.

To address the adverse publicity and help diffuse the situation, the in-house communication team and PR agencies need to engage proactively with media to correct perceptions and engage in advocacy through industry bodies and patient support groups. It is important to note that the communication teams need to engage with various stakeholders and not just the media to sensitize them on the real issues on a regular basis. Lack of communication leads to speculation which is more damaging.

An integrated communication strategy using various digital platforms is critical in today’s world considering the growing influence of these channels. Organizations need to be seen as agile and responsive during a crisis, and communication teams need to take ownership of this process.

What would you say is the future of Healthcare PR?

We all will agree that the future of healthcare PR will be data driven and patient centric, enabled by deeper social media penetration. As a highly aware and engaged pool of patients and care-givers demand in-depth healthcare information, it will need to be fulfilled by healthcare providers in a responsible manner.

Big data is going to play a major role and will provide new challenges and opportunities for all communicators. As people continue to move across platforms, sharing and reinforcing healthcare information will be about precision communications. What we will experience is the convergence of the Communications strategies of B2B and B2C healthcare companies.

In the future, healthcare will go from general to personal. The “Internet of Things” will connect devices that can support predictive medicine and products that link a patient’s wellness to their lifestyle will go from luxury to necessity. Hence, it is of utmost importance that healthcare PR professionals focus on building a good base of knowledge around data, analytics and tech.

What are the biggest challenges for healthcare communications professionals?

I believe the biggest challenge that a healthcare communications professional faces in the present scenario is to stay relevant in the changing times. They have to embrace technology and a 24×7 paradigm and equip themselves to manage brand reputation on the go.

Another big challenge is to address the poor perception of the healthcare sector and the growing mistrust of patients. The third imperative is to be in a constant learning mode to ensure that they are aligned with the needs of the diverse stakeholders they manage and their communication is relevant to patients, prescribers, payers, KoLs and various partners.

What are the highlights of your decade-long career?

I have had a very enriching career spanning two decades in the Life Sciences sector having steered Corporate Communications and Brand Management for some of the leading pharma brands of the country. I am proud to have played a very critical role in establishing ‘Brand India’ as a global pharma brand while working for India’s first and largest international pharma company. I have also steered the internal communications and Corporate Identity initiatives of multiple pharma brands, which has earned me several recognitions over the years. Most recently, I received the ‘ND Rajpal Communicator of the Decade Award’ by PRCI in 2017 and Reputation Today ranked me among the ‘Top Ten Women in Corporate Communications in India’ for 2016.

What is your advice to youngsters who want to make a mark in healthcare communications?

One of the prerequisites to stay on top of your game in the field of healthcare communications is to develop a good understanding of your business. It is also important to build relationships with diverse stakeholders including healthcare professionals, their associates and patients. So, my advice to these youngsters would be to be willing to invest in constant learning, develop domain knowledge, and focus on patient centric communication.

The article originally published in Reputation Today Magazine, Vol. II, Issue 2

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