“Public Relations (PR) is not just for managing a company’s image and for damage control. It’s also used as an adjunct to marketing products and sometimes the distinction is blurred.”
Mack goes on to list a number of ways that public relations is practiced in the pharmaceutical industry, including reputation management, education and public affairs. He also cites an article by Ilyssa Levins, president of HCIL Consulting, a healthcare public relations and marketing firm, published in the June edition of Medical Marketing & Media magazine. In the article Levins asks pharmaceutical marketers to shift dollars spent on “help-seeking” or educational advertisements to public relations. These commercials are non-branded – i.e., they do not mention a drug or device.
Levin further articulated her rationale for advocating this shift in a press release she issued on June 23. She says: “FDA requirements are becoming more nuanced, and that means as PR professionals, we need to be more careful and more thorough.” However, this shifting environment does not mean that DTC PR campaigns can’t be “innovative and engaging.” She argues that “well-designed PR can cost-effectively increase the ROI of disease-awareness advertising, deliver [convincing, third-party supported] messages . . . improve compliance, and demonstrate the industry’s commitment to advancing public health.”
Mack says that the “blurring” of the line between PR and pharmaceutical marketing increases the odds that consumers and healthcare providers will be inundated with additional “BS.” “If the level rises too high, our . . . tolerance is exceeded and could result in negative feedback,” he argues.
Reading Mack’s article raised a number of questions for me, which I address below. Does Public Relations Play Second Fiddle To Pharmaceutical Marketing?
Mack describes public relations as “disguised” marketing. He asserts that PR’s primary function is to protect a company’s image and damage control. I don’t believe that PR plays second fiddle to pharmaceutical marketing. In fact, it often has a critical role in marketing campaigns. Marketers utilize public relations to educate patients on new conditions (i.e., condition the market), address misperceptions (issues management) and inform on issues (public affairs). It is clear that PR plays a very important role in the marketing mix.
Do Public Relations Pros “Buy” Media Coverage?
Mack suggests that one function of public relations is to “buy” media coverage. I don’t agree. While pharmaceutical companies pay public relations firms to “pitch” media on products and services, PR pros don’t buy coverage. Public relations practitioners have to work through the filter of the media. This means that they can pitch a story all they want, but if the journalist is not interested, a story won’t appear.
The point is that the media decide whether and how they will cover a story. (For example, a point often missed in the big blowup over Video News Releases is that public relations firms provided media with video packages. The media decided to run them, but didn’t say where the information came from.)
Now, are all of the conditions public relations professionals promote cures for cancer? Certainly not, but as I mentioned in a previous post, pharmaceutical companies have every right to promote them – if it is done responsibly.
Is Public Relations Unregulated & Non-transparent?
I think many would agree that the current state of pharmaceutical marketing regulation is far from ideal. In fact, in another post, I have suggested a number of ways that regulatory scrutiny can be tightened. However, I do not think that public relations is completely unregulated. For example:
-Public relations materials are assessed by internal pharmaceutical legal and regulatory teams, just like all other promotional items
-Fair balance must be included in all press releases mentioning a study, drug or device
In addition, responsible public relations practitioners inform media about who is sponsoring a promotional effort and put them into contact with company spokespersons, upon request.
So, while one may argue that regulation is inadequate, the public relations profession isn’t completely free from scrutiny.
Another question is whether public relations is non-transparent. I would say yes. This is because little is widely known about the exact nature of dealings between public relations professionals and the media. What prompts them to cover a story? What sources do they use to corroborate public relations practitioners’ claims? In many cases, we rely on the media to practice due diligence, but there is little transparency in the relationship between journalists and PR pros.
Overall, I think that Mack makes some good points about disease awareness marketing. Is it going to continue? I think so. This is because regulatory scrutiny of branded marketing will only increase. Is it useful? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
However, I would be loathe to describe public relations as marketing’s side kick. PR has long been and will remain an integral part of the overall marketing mix.
As always, your comments are welcome.