PICA #060

Pharma in the dog house.

Pharma companies deserve to be perceived as heroes, not villains.

The public perception of pharma is grim, caused by decades of being opaque, inscrutable and the subject of overwhelmingly bad press - it’s time for the industry to act collectively to restore a public image that does it justice.

The pharmaceutical industry is a force for good. The impact of the sector on the quality of life of the vast majority of human beings is undeniable. Yet 58% of those interviewed judge the pharmaceutical industry negatively, more negatively than any other industry. Every year Gallup tests the attitude of the general American population towards 25 industries. This year’s results, published in August, place the pharmaceutical industry firmly at the very bottom of the ranking with a net score of -31. That’s minus thirty-one. 88 points less than the most respected industry (restaurant) and the trend is negative, in 2015 the net score was +4, last year it was -23. I haven’t been able to find a comparable poll conducted in other geographical regions but I have seen reputation research of the pharmaceutical industry in the UK and EU. These results appear to present a better situation than in the US but are still negative. None of these results are acceptable.

There have been many stories in global media that have contributed to a negative image and there is no need to examine them here. What is relevant is the one-sidedness of the information. Bad news travels fast and is amplified by outrage, good news tends to be less viral, incremental improvements and the status quo have zero visibility. The good the pharma industry does far outweighs the bad but the visibility of the bad far outweighs the good. There is a solution to this, it’s called blowing your own trumpet and it works. Johnson&Johnson provides an example of how pharma can successfully counterbalance reputational blows by reminding everyone of positive activities in the face of bad. Over the last 12 months, J&J have spent $23 million on corporate image advertising (“Johnson & Johnson: We never stop taking care of you.”) in the US. J&J have been the subject of multiple public scandals recently and The Reputation Institute confirms that their reputation has declined in 2019 but J&J still obtained a decent 68.7 out of 100 in the firm’s RepTrak (a score over 80 is “Excellent”, 70-79 is “Strong” and 60-69 is “Medium”).

Perception is reality. Pharma companies must improve the general public’s perception of their industry. They need to remind society of the good they do because there always will be an uneasy relationship between profit-making and providing life-saving solutions. They must mend their reputation because a society that loses all faith in pharma companies is one that will no longer accept the price they demand for their products. With public opinion against it, pharma is a convenient punch-bag for politicians faced with a sluggish economy, spiralling public spending and rising national debt. The job of reestablishing its reputation cannot fall on individual brands. Each company must contribute but the work must be done by category associations like PhRMA and EFPIA. Its not an easy task but it is a worthy one. Society can’t afford not to respect the pharmaceutical industry and consequently, the pharmaceutical industry can’t afford not to generate respect.