In recent years, the healthcare industry has been plagued by widespread reputational challenges, often fueled by the bitter debate over healthcare costs. This has led to near-constant scrutiny of pharmaceutical companies by media, policymakers, and the general public. For communicators and consultants in this sector, it can sometimes feel like no other industry presents such a large and unrelenting target for public criticism.

Yet, the pharmaceutical companies that bear the brunt of the drug-pricing criticism have not been targets of high-profile, activist campaigns on major social issues. Perhaps because they have escaped extensive targeting, they’ve been able to remain silent on these topics, despite an increasingly polarizing and populist political and social environment. Facing unprecedented expectations from consumers and employees, many visible brands outside healthcare have begun to take stands on issues such as environment threats, racial injustice, gender inequality, and restrictive immigration policies. Healthcare companies mostly have avoided the fray.

Consider, for example, tech companies such as Apple, Salesforce, and Facebook. These and other Silicon Valley giants seem comfortable speaking out on topics such as family separation and immigration policy. Meanwhile, few healthcare companies have publicly waded into this debate. In the wake of a high school shooting incident in Parkland, FL, some airlines and car rental companies revoked NRA discounts, Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped selling guns, and a number of large asset management firms removed gun stocks from their portfolios. Again, healthcare companies avoided a public stance—with the notable exception of Aetna, which donated quietly to March for Our Lives. And of the more than 3,600 American companies, colleges, and cultural organizations that committed to upholding the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, less than 30 were healthcare organizations, broadly defined. Largely absent from the list were pharma, biotech, or insurance companies

Why Don’t Pharma Companies Feel Pressure to Act?

Many of these corporate actions were in response—direct or indirect—to pressure from activists on social issues. So why have pharma and other healthcare businesses felt less pressure to act on social issues? One explanation may be that healthcare is “different” from other sectors. While tech giants, retailers, and even asset managers typically have direct company-to-consumer relationships, the interaction between pharmaceutical companies and patients is often indirect and more nuanced.

This leads to an odd discrepancy in brand awareness and engagement. People are much more likely to know the name of the company that makes their sneakers than the company that makes their medication. And there’s the issue of choice: Consumers can choose to buy their sneakers from brands with social policies they appreciate. But they rarely get asked their opinion before filling a prescription, signing up for a health plan, or scheduling surgery for an implantable medical device.

This sort of brand disengagement creates a cushion that seems to insulate pharmaceutical and device makers from widespread consumer activism—apart from drug pricing. But, it also makes responding directly to activist actions a unique challenge for these companies.

In reality, the pharma and device sectors may be less insulated than we perceive them to be. As so many other industries have learned, there’s no way to opt out of activist targeting on social issues, regardless of the company’s political neutrality, published value statements, or degrees of separation between the brand and the consumer.

How to Prepare for Activist Campaigns

While engaging on these issues may appear high risk, remaining silent is often just as dangerous. By identifying, analyzing, and addressing areas of exposure, companies can mitigate risk and position themselves to respond more effectively. While every company is different, there are a few exercises every company should go through to prepare for activist campaigns that can materialize overnight.

  • Talk to your team: Internal discord on cultural or social issues is an invitation to reputational disruption. Just as consumers want their brands to stand for something, employees want to work for companies that share their values. Identifying the staff’s expectations and committing to action in those areas isn’t just a tactic to retain top talent. It provides a productive outlet for employees to voice their discontent and feel heard, instead of resorting to public activism after feeling ignored. Get started by asking staff what issues they care about, and the kind of action they’d like to see from the company.
  • Understand your “hot topics”: Not all social issues are created equal, and neither are the communications risks that come with the territory. The challenge is identifying the polarizing issues specific to your business, where you are most likely to get caught in conflict’s cross-hairs. Do you manufacture reproductive health therapies, and are you keeping close tabs on how political currents are shifting in your top markets? Do you have a heavy manufacturing footprint, and if so, are your processes as “green” as they need to be? Are your factories overseas, and what do labor relations look like in those regions? Do your therapies treat conditions associated with disadvantaged or underserved populations—such as HIV or women’s health conditions—where activism might arise from the community you’re serving?
  • Know where you stand: Once it’s clear where the exposures lie, it’s important to find consensus around the company’s stance before you’re asked about an issue. That’s the only way ensure a rapid and effective response. It also minimizes the risk of having to publicly adjust your stance, which can make the company look wishy-washy. Work with a cross-functional team of leaders to determine the company’s position on key issues and align on the desired level of proactivity and visibility on each issue.

Remember that, just like the healthcare market, the landscape for activism in our country is shifting rapidly. What consumers want from your company today may be very different from what they want in six months. The companies that are most vigilant regarding the evolution of global social activism will be best prepared for the permutations of the future. The good news is the same vigilance and proactive approach to social issues will enable companies to set themselves apart as authentic leaders with a far-sighted vision of social responsibility.

  • Dana Davis

    Dana Davis is a strategist in the Reputation & Risk Management Practice at Syneos Health, where she helps biopharma clients communicate the value they bring to their stakeholders. Her expertise lies in issues of corporate activism; advising companies that must respond to activist tactics from patients, employees, or investors, as well as companies looking to take a proactive stance on social issues.

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