Communication is an essential aspect of life and it has become increasingly important to understand how to shorten distances with direct and horizontal language.
We all communicate, we do it in everyday life as in our professional activity: with words and silences we open and close perspectives, we create consensus around us, we become a reference for the people around us.
The study of the phenomena related to hate speech, the repercussions that fake news have had (and continue to have) on our social life, on the destiny of all of us have shown that exchange, at any level, can generate virtuous circles that feed themselves or initiate dangerous spirals of irrationality.
We have had confirmation of the fact that communication is a powerful and reliable tool, which we are called to manage with prudence and responsibility and which can contribute to shorten distances, also and above all in the health sector.
But looking to the future, what are the channels through which the pharmaceutical industry will dialogue with its public and what are the modalities?
I talked about it with Gianluca Comin, president and founder of the consulting company in the communication, media relations and public affairs sector Comin & Partners and professor of communication and advertising techniques at the Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome.
You have often emphasized that marketing is the result of all company behaviors, both in the technical and relational fields. In the communication field, how important is it to listen to your audience?
Two years and more of a pandemic have certainly left their mark. The consumer even more than ever seeks not only a good product at a fair price, but also to identify with the values of the company that offers it. And this is why it is increasingly important to fill one’s brand with content, including ethical ones, and to promote communication that is increasingly aimed at spreading one’s values.
This relationship between company and consumer is not one-way, but implies the ability first to identify who our interlocutors are, and then to activate a two-way action, according to a “I speak-provoke a reaction-listening-monitoring” sequence.
Listening systems are widespread and varied: from reading and monitoring online conversations (on social media, for example), to organizing discussions in the form of focus groups, to analyzing the e-mails received by the company.
But the ability to understand and listen to our interlocutors, stakeholders, customers or other is essential to measure the message and dress it with those values and contents that strengthen the company in the sale of its product.
Communication in the pharmaceutical sector is limited by numerous regulatory constraints: can this represent the starting point for building a distinctive communication for the sector?
Let’s start with a premise: the pharmaceutical sector, like the petrochemical and, in some ways, the energy sector, starts with a reputational handicap. In the awareness of their communities, all these sectors have a more negative image than others.
The renewable, automobile or technology industries, to cite a few examples, do not have this handicap. Then there are the constraints, which are also present in other markets (one above all the financial one) and which impose certain rules in communication.
Now, we don’t have to look at advertising as the only aspect of corporate communication. Certainly in this field the constraints are enormous, even in some cases they prohibit advertising communication.
But we must speak in a broader sense of communication with our stakeholders, an area in which many other methodologies can be applied. For example, patient associations, corporate social responsibility activities and those linked to ESG mechanisms can be involved.
Therefore, regulation certainly represents a constraint, certainly the pharmaceutical reputation gap is another limit, but the multiplicity of initiatives that companies can resort to (and to which many of them resort) is wide and can be included in that profession that we we define advocacy communicators, that is the ability to make our stakeholders welcome our requests as if they were theirs. And this in the pharmaceutical sector is already a more than tested practice.
The pharmaceutical industry has made a significant contribution to addressing the Covid-19 crisis: do you think this may have nurtured a feeling of new trust in citizens?
The pandemic has restored the centrality of scientific communication. In the past, I have lived closely the experience of the energy sector (Comin was Enel’s executive vice president of external relations from 2002 to 2014, Ed), in which science was often conditioned by populist and anti-scientific tendencies that denied the scientific evidence of the phenomena.
This has been repeated in the world of health: let’s think about the role of what I call “digital hypochondria“, that is, the fact that people draw on the information they find on the internet by typing the name of the disease they are convinced they have and think they have found thus the absolute truth.
The pandemic has put scientists back at the center and returned a more significant role to science and scientific communication. All this also reverberated on the role of pharmaceuticals, which could have made more and better use of this moment.
It is difficult to understand this choice. In my opinion, a bit of shyness could have taken over, fear of the controversy that flared up over the use of vaccines, perhaps the belief that greater participation in public life could be interpreted in relation to economic interests alone.
My opinion is that they have wasted a great opportunity, that of taking a leadership role in society and contributing to the solution of the crisis not only with the supply and distribution of vaccines, which were fundamental, but also with information that could have been be more complete and which has instead been completely delegated to scientists, the only ones to participate in the most popular television programs.
How can we explain that not even the top management of these companies wanted to bring their experience to public fora?
Even the top managers were not very present and, in any case, even on the rare occasions when they intervened in some programs, their attitude was always defensive, never proactive. Instead, it could also have been a great opportunity to embody the new role proposed by CEO activism, that of a CEO who intervenes in matters affecting society, like institutions.
You see, with the crisis of political and institutional representation, the role of corporations has become increasingly important.
Companies enjoy greater public trust than governments and institutions (see Edelman report) but this is also a load of responsibility in defining policies and exercising influence on decision makers.
Along which lines should the pharmaceutical industry reorganize itself after the terrible storm of the pandemic?
I believe that, if there is one point that the pandemic has highlighted in a dramatic way, it is that the citizen had by now lost direct contact with their GP, with proximity medicine.
We found ourselves faced with this strong contradiction between a medicine explained on the internet like any other activity – but much more dangerous if left to the initiative of the individual – and the absence of direct contact, close to the patient who could to guide in the care. I believe that one of the lessons that the pandemic has brought us is precisely this: people need contact on the one hand and credible references on the other.
Although this proposal may perhaps be more targeted to hospitals, ASLs and general practitioners, we can also decline it for companies. If the industry were able to increase its credibility in the one-to-one relationship with the citizen, we would certainly be much better off in the next emergency.
In this framework, can pharmaceutical companies play a role? Certainly yes: they have the strength to make their voices heard and to get in tune and empathy with the citizen. However, it must not be a message from above, but a horizontal communication, which reaches people directly and shortens distances.
Can we say that the pharmacy has contributed in a more incisive way to not leaving patients alone?
Absolutely yes. Citizens found more closeness in pharmacies than in their general practitioner. This is the experience that each of us has had. The doctor was often afraid to meet the patient, he feared contagion, while the pharmacist was always there, ready to dispense advice.
It was a great opportunity for the pharmaceutical chains: I work for Hippocrates and Boots and my experience is that both (but also the other groups) have made a great effort to take on part of the responsibilities of doctors as well.
Perhaps this is another way: that of transferring a part of preventive medicine to the pharmacy, so that citizens can find it at home, and that it can represent a support tool also with a view to achieving greater economic sustainability of the treatment.
How can we set up a more mature dialogue with the public to increase their engagement?
This is an important point, which applies to all sectors, not just pharmaceuticals: tuning into the most appropriate language to make oneself understood by one’s stakeholders is essential. Little time is spent on this: companies often think more about tools than content.
For example, when designing a social campaign you should have a clear idea of the message you want to send out, to whom it is addressed and, then, how I distribute it. I believe that today there is a lot of space for communicators and professional figures in companies, in the direction of strengthening aspects relating to language, tone of voice and images to be used in dialogue with their interlocutors.
Considering that there is never a single cluster of individuals, but there are different types of people, accustomed to interpreting language in a different way, we should come to study an almost one-to-one communication.
On the other hand, social networks have led people to be protagonists of information, to make information themselves. And often to have a wider audience than the companies themselves. It therefore becomes urgent to know how to recruit the subjects we today define as “influencers” and make them their own testimonials to shorten distances.