Analysis

A House of Cards? Is the rise in the pharmaceutical industry’s reputation here to stay?

Maddy Farnworth

COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the pharmaceutical industry, which is now enjoying increased levels of visibility and trust amongst the public, healthcare professionals and policymakers alike. How can industry maintain this glow as the spotlight of the pandemic fades and the normal business of building health systems, investing in R&D and securing medicines access resumes?

Last week, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) and Ipsos Mori launched the UK Pharmaceutical Reputation Index, covering perceptions of the industry by the public, healthcare professionals and MPs between July 2020 and March 2021.

Following 18 months of the spotlight being shone on the pharmaceutical industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the results are unsurprising from a UK perspective.  Overall, the pandemic has led to increased public visibility of the sector in general, driven largely by coverage of a handful of companies.  Pharmaceutical companies generally are now thought of more favourably than either internet companies or banks, and General Public ‘trust’ is higher than that of banks, internet companies, automotive manufacturers or food and drink vendors.

Similarly, the evidence reveals that the pandemic response is challenging MP’s prior perceptions of the industry.  Call them fickle, but the achievements of pharmaceutical sector in the global COVID-19 response are viewed by MPs as benefitting the UK’s international reputation, which means they’re more positive about the sector as a result.  Meanwhile, most healthcare professionals see the pharmaceutical industry as saving and improving lives.  To cut a long story short – for anyone who doesn’t have time to pour over the detail – the role that individual companies have played (and continue to play) in fighting the pandemic has led to marked improvements on pretty much all metrics for the whole sector.

This evidence chimes with other surveys, industry barometers and corporate reputation assessments over the past year – most of which conclude a net positive improvement in pharmaceutical industry reputation, trust, and public perception because of the pandemic. This may well be a UK-specific phenomenon, with mixed media coverage in Europe related to the vaccine, and US surveys suggesting little shift in overall industry perception.

Over the past 18 months, certain individual pharmaceutical companies and by proxy the industry have become household names – and as people hear more about them, they think they know more about them.  At the same time, pharmaceutical companies have been able to demonstrate its value to the public in a different way – going beyond treatments to show the ability to respond to public need, work in partnership and deliver things ‘for the greater good’.  As a result, both trust and transparency scores have increased.  Despite this, across the audience types, it’s clear significant knowledge gaps remain – there is limited understanding about how R&D or access to medicine works, and still nobody is clear on medicines pricing.  All in all, because some pharmaceutical companies are in the public eye, more people feel positive about the sector, and assume it is both more trustworthy and more transparent than before, despite little change in familiarity with it, or understanding of what it does.

The problem with assumptions, of course, is that they can change.

So, what does this mean for how the pharmaceutical industry communicates? Firstly – and perhaps obviously, the industry can’t get complacent.  Although to some it feels like it is dragging, the pandemic won’t last forever, and so the net positive reputation impact caused by the pandemic is likely to fade.  At best, the pandemic has hammered home the precarious relationship between the public and the pharmaceutical sector – and shown how the actions of one company can affect the whole industry.

Actually, the nature of the coverage about pharmaceutical companies hasn’t really changed – it’s still mostly about their academic research partners when it’s good news, and the pharmaceutical company front and centre in bad news – but the public’s perception of the reporting has.  One of the reasons communicating with the public has been successful during the pandemic is because pharmaceutical companies have been telling them what they want to hear – communication has been relatable, relevant, and timely – and driven by purpose.

The other thing aiding pharmaceutical reputation is that helpfully, there’s another “bad guy” in town – COVID-19.  When the acute threat of COVID-19 diminishes, the media will search for other villains.  The causes we support, in The Networked Age, are those that allow us to oppose someone.  The sector needs to think about how to frame their communications in relationship to global health challenges, and make sure they continue to be positioned as collaborating for the greater good.  After all, COVID is just one of many “bad guys” the industry helps to fight day-in-day-out.

Since we first launched our Networked Age model in 2018, MHP has been studying the rise of tribalism as a force that shapes the way people relate to the world and each other, launching our Purpose Pathfinder earlier this year.  Purpose, powerfully articulated, can create a competitive advantage – especially as society becomes more polarised, something which has been demonstrated wholeheartedly throughout the pandemic.  Pharmaceutical sector communications succeeded during the pandemic because it was based on community – focused on togetherness, fairness and shared interests and experiences.  As we move forward, the sector needs to make sure they know their audience, and designs campaigns and narratives which resonate.

So what about engaging with politicians? For individual companies involved directly in vaccine production and COVID-19 response, there has been unprecedented access to Prime Ministers, Health Ministers and other government stakeholders, and the speed of decision-making and collaboration between certain companies and governments has increased dramatically.

The challenge now is making that collaboration work for everyone, considering some of the challenging conversations likely to be coming down the track.  The pharmaceutical industry’s profits have been increasing just as governments have had to increase spending to support the pandemic response.  Undoubtedly government spending cuts will follow, including on healthcare, as part of post-pandemic recovery plans – and with them they will bring renewed scrutiny on medicines prices and access.  Collaboration, and a willingness to innovate, from both sides, could open doors to conversations that historically haven’t got off the ground – like value-based or indication-based pricing.  However, much as the net positive benefit from the actions of a few companies has been enjoyed by the sector, any negative impact as a result of challenging pricing conversations will also have a sector-wider impact.  The industry could do worse than agreeing together what its position is, so that future collaboration with the Government is as smooth as it can be.

There is also some interesting data lurking in the Index about who or what politicians listen to: universities and medical research charities are viewed more favourably than the NHS by MPs.  This is an interesting challenge for the way pharmaceutical companies engage with policymakers.  Historically, effort is exerted to demonstrate the sector as a valuable partner to the NHS.  Perhaps they should consider demonstrating themselves as a valuable partner to science moving forward.

The NHS, the Government and the public will inevitably change their minds once the immediate focus on COVID-19 is over, and the media spotlight fades.  As challenges other than the pandemic come to the fore – including economic downturn, growing population burdens and the climate crisis, the pharmaceutical industry needs to work out what role they want to play in those conversations, and how they can demonstrate they’re working for good.