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Tech, trust, and turmoil: What’s top of mind for pharma marketeers in 2024? 

‘Optimistic uncertainty’; this was the sentiment underlying the presentations and panel discussions at this year’s PRWeek PharmaComms Conference.

In a brave new post-pandemic world, the global public have never been more knowledgeable on and appreciative of pharmaceutical producers’ work, but this confidence is built on shifting foundations. As international events pull attention elsewhere, pharma players are fighting to keep health topics on the news agenda, and ensure they still rank above TikTok as an authoritative and trustworthy source. Between the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), growing cognizance of health inequalities and the immense potential of new patient-centered treatments, the prognosis is uncertain.  

Fortunately, we’re here to offer an effective treatment in the form of our top takeaways from one of the premier events in the pharma comms calendar.  

1.  Keeping it real 

What tone should pharma communications take as a rule? Clear and concise? Warm and inviting? Or honest and truthful? As marketers, we strive to create the authentic, accessible content audiences crave, but achieving this ‘realness’ can be difficult when communications need to be carefully calculated to avoid regulatory push back.  

The tension between accessibility and authority was a major topic of discussion at the Pharma Comms Conference. The good news is, there are solutions. As one delegate pointed out, clarity is often more important than creativity in pharma. We may not always be able to use writerly phrases to describe a drug’s mechanism of action, but we can always make sure that the human perspective is central. On the patient-facing side, this means avoiding jargon and acronyms and giving users a platform to share stories in their own words. A similar sentiment applies to business-to-business (b2b) communications, just with a small shift of focus. Here, the priority is transparency; about an organization’s stance on important issues, the impact their solutions can deliver and the value they can bring to drug development processes.  

2. In pharma we trust? 

If building authenticity in pharma marketing relates to how messages are conveyed, instilling trust is all about what is being said and where. According to Gallup’s annual US Industry Image Rating, the public’s esteem for the pharma industry has fluctuated wildly in the last five years; 27% positive in 2019, up seven percentage points in 2020, then back down to a record low of 18% positive sentiment in 2023. Why such a rollercoaster? The most applicable factor in the context of pharma marketing is the spread of dis- and misinformation on social media. With AI-generated content becoming more convincing and many turning to TikTok or X (formerly Twitter) as their main news source, scientists, health professionals and marketers are wondering; ‘ how can we make sure the correct information is seen and believed in a sea of content that’s digestible and compelling – but wrong?’ 

One response which surfaced at the conference was the need to ‘pick our battles’. Especially when faced with bad-faith actors, there are some conversations where it’s pointless or reputationally damaging to engage. Instead, pharma communicators can take charge of the narrative with clear, evidence-based information which addresses essential topics without giving credence to misinformation. While this is more relevant to consumer-facing comms, there are equally takeaways for b2b marketers too. The value we add here is in elevating evidence-based content so that it’s as engaging as it is factual – bolstering a company‘s reputation in the process.   

On the hot issue of AI, the consensus was to ‘think human’ while letting machines take some of the strain. Technology is advancing faster than regulations can keep up, creating ethical questions around data protection and the implications of AI ‘hallucinations’ in a healthcare context. But, if these challenges can be mastered, AI’s capacity to free humans from administrative drudgery could be transformative. As professionals who skirt the intersections of tech, communications, science and healthcare, pharma marketers can help ensure AI tools are seen as catalysts for human creativity, rather than our robot overlords.  

3. Nobody gets left behind 

Despite our social media ‘bubbles’ and atomized information sources, we are ultimately part of a global community. This theme of quality care for all was the final one to stand out to us at the conference, though it took various forms throughout the sessions. On the macro scale, we have the imperative to tackle pan-world health challenges. As we all became keenly aware during the pandemic, what affects people living thousands of miles away can have a material impact on our lives. Improving access to the latest treatments and technologies for everyone was therefore a central point, along with the more industry-focused goal of keeping knowledge sharing networks open to combat issues such as antimicrobial resistance.  

Reflecting perspective shifts we’ve seen spreading across the industry, patient advocacy and women’s health also took center-stage at the conference. Pharmaceutical science is heading towards a watershed moment where centuries-old inequalities are finally being questioned. The natural reaction to this is to show appropriate concern by saying something. But when the standards at issue are as fundamental as male-centric clinical trial designs and anatomical models, pharma marketers are rightly asking how they can take a stand without straying into ‘purpose washing’.  

And so, we come full circle back to authenticity. Patients, governments and other stakeholders can’t and don’t expect 100% clean records from pharmaceutical companies, but they do require a willingness to listen, revaluate and change systems for the better.  A practical expression of this could be mandating the input of patient advocacy groups in new drug tests, or publishing reports detailing the demographics of those recruited for clinical trials to ensure diversity, fairness and inclusion.  

A spoonful of sugar  

The pharma industry is grappling with challenges for which there are no ‘miracle cures’. But where there are no obvious solutions, there is also opportunity. Following the Pharma Comms Conference the main feelings we were left with were hope, excitement and a resolve to rise to the occasion.  

So, here’s to the future of pharmaceutical marketing and communications which – despite it all – is looking bright.   

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