Right First Time Works for Public Relations, Too

It’s time for the drug industry’s face to become something other than that of the “pharma sales rep.”

By Agnes Shanley, Editor in Chief

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It’s time to throw out the sample bag and depose the pharmaceutical sales rep as the face of the industry. Manufacturing and R&D deserve that role.

Why have sales and marketing become the face of the U.S. pharmaceutical industry? In the past, the public face of the drug industry was always its researchers — those dedicated and talented few who spend their lifetimes seeking new cures. Some never find anything, but at least their struggles are heroic and inspiring.

In the rest of the world (outside of New Zealand), where drug advertisements are not shown on television, and pharma sales reps can only push company pens, notepads, umbrellas — not drug samples — the pharmaceutical industry has held on to its prestige. In the U.S., drug companies are viewed as just a notch or two above big tobacco in the public’s view.

Perhaps the ascendancy of the “sales rep” mirrors the fact that sales and marketing budgets at so many companies so far outweigh those for research. And marketing hype far outweighs the attention paid to manufacturing.

Manufacturing, like R&D, has always been the industry’s most ethical side. Perhaps it has been misguided by the wrong performance indicators and regulatory uncertainty, but you’d never find an operations professional lying about time spent out of the office. And you’d never hire someone without basic scientific and technical training to work in a manufacturing facility.

This hasn’t been the case in pharmaceutical sales, where a legion of good-looking and intelligent people, most with no scientific background, have been trained to memorize facts about products and captivate physicians, nurses and back office staff into buying more drug products.

In one memorable part of Jamie Reidy’s “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman,” a seasoned salesperson without one science course to his credit engages a harried pediatrician in debate in a crowded waiting room over the efficacy and side effects of various ear-infection treatments. Crying kids in the background, he “closes” the deal.

But that case was an exception. A growing number of physicians are becoming sick and tired of seeing these reps, and more are openly expressing dislike of the industry’s marketing tactics. Also earning their scorn are some of the industry’s so-called “medical education” efforts, in which Ph.D.s and others with graduate science degrees use technical papers and forums to “close” the deal.

The inverse relationship between public opinion and marketing’s profile has already been seen in various U.S. public opinion polls (for example, see "Kaiser Poll Shows Public Distrust of Drug Makers").

Soon, we’ll see Hollywood’s take on the industry, with no less than four films coming out over the next year. Not only Michael Moore’s documentary, “Sicko,” but two films about pharmaceutical sales reps: "Side Effects," one of these films, will be re-released in September (for a look at the film’s trailer, which doesn’t really say all that much, visit www.sideeffectsthemovie.com). A movie based on Reidy’s book is also reportedly in the works. Both Reidy and the protagonist of "Side Effects" are young, smart, attractive, likeable, and grappling with ethical questions they’d never anticipated facing. Reidy’s work ethic is nonexistent, yet the former Army officer still comes across as a “nice guy.”

But even before these films appear at a theater near you, Hollywood will release a film version of a John Le Carre book with the sleep-inducing title, “The Constant Gardener.” Why would a book panned by his fans and critics alike be deemed worthy of a megabudget film? Because star Ralph Fiennes gets to battle — you guessed it — the evil pharmaceutical industry. In this case, the industry is symbolized by a company exploiting people in an African nation, using them as guinea pigs for medical experiments.

Hollywood knows only too well what the U.S. public thinks of the pharmaceutical industry. And in this case, it also gets to tap into knee-jerk responses involving drug companies and developing nations. (For a trailer of that movie, due in theaters next week, click here.)

What’s the solution to the U.S. drug industry’s huge public relations problem? Some of it (health insurance, for example) is beyond the industry’s capabilities to solve. But manufacturers have brought some of the negative public opinion upon themselves. Lower cost drugs would be one step toward making amends.

While you and your colleagues continue to work on raising the industry’s Sigma level, why don’t your colleagues in the public relations department show how manufacturing is working to lower drug costs and retain more local employment?

It’s time to throw out the sample bag and depose the pharmaceutical sales rep as the face of the industry. Manufacturing and R&D deserve that role, and the public needs to realize the importance, and difficulty, of the work you're doing.

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