PR executives who work in the drug and medical device industry are constantly on the edge. Every day, we deal with information about unexpected side effects, inappropriate use, drug contamination, product shortages and pricing issues.

When a crisis hits, PR executives not only have to execute quickly, but also reassure repeatedly. In the pharma and medical device space, handling a crisis also means communicating with those who treat the patients and collaborating with the regulatory body charged with complying with standards set by the FDA. When patient lives are at stake, the guidelines for managing a crisis follow a slightly different path.

This article shares the story of how a medical PR agency applied a set of guidelines to manage a crisis in a multi-channel world.


Sometime ago a small, privately held specialty pharmaceutical company acquired two products from a large, publicly held pharmaceutical company that no longer wanted to manufacture them. The drugs were used to treat rare forms of cancer or disease. The active ingredients were not new molecules and have been around for decades.

Contrary to popular belief, drug and medical device executives do not enter the industry with the primary goal of making profits. There is also very little incentive for companies to develop and manufacture drugs or devices for rare diseases because they affect a very small population (less than 200,000 individuals), according to the National Organization of Rare Diseases (NORD).

Most enter the industry with the desire of improving lives. This was the case with the specialty pharmaceutical company. The CEO wanted to build an organization dedicated to providing therapies for patients with unmet needs.

Both products the company acquired would need a specialized manufacturing plant to produce the drugs. Plans were also discussed to invest in additional research, finding new indications in the drugs. But research and development was expensive, which forced the company to increase pricing significantly. While more expensive than they were previously, the drug prices were still competitive with current cancer therapies.

The New York Times heard about the acquisition and a trusted source informed a reporter of the new price increase. The health reporter informed the company that an article would be written and published soon after the new drug pricing was made available.

A medical PR agency was brought in to help manage the impact the article may have to the company, the physicians who prescribe their drugs and the patients who need them. After meeting with the executive team, the group established a seven-step process to execute with the support of the CEO. The following outlines the process.

1. Establish a Communications Infrastructure

A communications infrastructure creates a set of structural elements that helps facilitate communication and distribute messages quickly and effectively.

The structural elements incorporate not just the varied audiences (e.g., physicians, sales representatives, patients), but also their preferred forms of communications. In an era where technology gave birth to multiple channels, identifying the preferred forms of communications can help ensure the message is viewed, seen or heard quickly.

A communications infrastructure is designed to handle such questions as:

1. What’s the issue?

2. What needs to be said?

3. What needs to be done?

4. Who are we talking to?

5. How do they prefer to see the message?

It’s also important to build in a tracking and monitoring system into the infrastructure. This would allow the PR team to review every call, assess and quantify every impact.

2. Build the Crisis Team

Members of the crisis team should include at a minimum the CEO; a representative from public relations; the product director (for the brand in crisis); the vice president who oversees the sales team; a managed care representative, charged with communicating with insurance providers; and a representative from the regulatory group, which plays an essential role in ensuring all products comply with regulations set by the FDA.

The common perception in a crisis is to turn to the CEO as spokesperson. However, the CEO may not necessarily be the only choice. As a basic rule, the person who is most credible and authentic should serve as spokesperson. In the specialty pharma case, the vice president overseeing the company’s product portfolio made a more appropriate choice as spokesperson. The CEO, however, was the primary communicator to all staff and to the board of directors.

3. Monitor the Social Channels

The 2012 Pew Research confirms that 72% of individuals online are searching for health information. It’s also known that those who suffer from serious health conditions tend to be more active, more informed and more connected to social communities online.

When the specialty pharma company decided to increase the pricing for the newly acquired drugs, the PR team quickly began monitoring conversations in specific online communities. Usually, selecting a monitoring service to track social media is standard practice. However, these services use key word searches to collect the data and may miss conversations or personal revelations. As such, it’s important to supplement the service with manual monitoring.

4. Involve Members of the Press

Journalists think differently, ask questions differently and write content differently. They look at the minutia and see information others may not see. To best train the executives, consider bringing in actual journalists to help with media training, holding mock interviews and press conferences. When possible, select journalists from specific industries because each one has a unique need. Broadcast media, for example, want “killer” sound bites while industry media ask questions about the impact to the company’s long-term strategy. Bloggers tend to write subjectively while consumer business reporters look for the economic impact.

To avoid leaking the potential story ahead of time, select journalists who would not be assigned to write the story or who agree to sign a document indicating they would not be writing about the company and/or the topic at hand.

5. Respond Quickly and Customize to the Medium

When crises are centered on medicines and patients, quick response and empathy can make a difference on how a company is perceived.

Too slow of a response can give the crisis time to build steam, especially today when information can be shared within seconds. If no information is yet available, then announce that information is still being collected and assessed. In times of crises, it’s better to say something than remain silent.

Responses also need to be tailored to the medium. For example, email responses to patients need to be written conversationally, while communication to physicians is written at a professional level. Because social media channels limit the amount of information that can be shared, it’s best to direct individuals to an online portal such as the corporate website or brand microsite where content can be presented in greater depth.

Don’t underestimate the power of including video online. It can show empathy, emotion, and connection. Video content can also be controlled and can include patients and physicians who can support the message. But just as video can be a powerful supportive tool, it can also backfire if the wrong individuals are used. Avoid selecting individuals who come off as staged, unemotional or uncaring.

6. Focus on the Patient

Always keep the focus on the patient. When challenges are at their greatest, focusing on the patient may lead to better solutions.

For the specialty pharma company forced to make the price increase, the executives agreed that they needed to offer a Patient Assistance Program to ensure patients who cannot afford it can continue receiving the medicines. Once the framework for the program was established, information was sent overnight to advocacy groups for their input. Executives initiated calls the next day to walk them through the Patient Assistance Program.

7. Track, Monitor, Reassess.

When assessing the impact of the crisis to the company and the brand, the crisis team should not rely on number of impressions, clips or pickups. Today they also need to analyze the conversations occurring online, the number of individuals who clicked on links, the stickiness factor on the corporate site, and number of shares and likes. Combined, they give a more realistic view of the outcome.

Tracking and monitoring cross-channels during the crisis also provide a glimpse of where the threat may be strongest. Online communication, for example, can quickly be tracked to geographic locations, which may help the PR team address the problem that may be unique to that region.

Lastly, monitor how physicians are responding to the crisis, which can adversely affect prescriptions or product use. Work closely with the sales representatives and monitor their conversations with physicians. They may also need to be trained on how to best handle negative conversations.

After the New York Times article published the story about skyrocketing pharmaceutical drug pricing, the PR agency assessed the impact:

  • Of the 1,425 television stations the team monitored, only one TV station ran a story.
  • In a 30-minute conversation with the company spokesperson, the New York Times quoted the response that the spokesperson trained for.
  • While NBC Nightly News, Anderson 360, and superstation WGN-TV reached out to the crises team, all were successfully deflected.
  • Of the 2,500 radio stations across the country, only six stations aired the story.
  • Only 67 individuals sent emails the company or posted information online. Greater than 95% were not patients who were currently taking the therapies.

In any case, once the crisis has abated, a formal analysis of what was successful or what could have been done better are important next steps. These learnings should be integrated into the company’s PR guidelines before the next crisis hits. Most importantly, rebuilding relationships should begin immediately after the crisis has subsided.

  • Marita Gomez

    Marita Gomez is SVP and Managing Director of Paul Werth Associates, Chicago office. A former journalist, she has spent the past 25 years providing strategic public relations communications to clients in the pharmaceutical and medical devices industries.


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