Defending Your Image in a Digital Age
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The pharmaceutical industry - collectively and often individually - has tarnished its own reputation through unethical commercial practices such as off label promotions, bribery in China, covering up (or at best, not being as forthright as they might have been) safety concerns, and manufacturing problems leading to massive recalls. Besides creating their own problems, other players in the healthcare industry have pointed the finger of blame at pharma companies as a major cause of runaway costs.

Pharma companies are constrained in what they can say and how they communicate with key stakeholders such as the public or physicians. Whether they are marketing a particular product, or the company as a whole, they are limited by regulations and their message is likely to fall upon a skeptical (if not hostile) audience. Any attempt to get their own message out is undermined by the perception that they are greedy and self-serving.

While there has been increasing pressure for companies to publish all of their clinical trial data for some time, they can at least control the timing and method of its release. The publishing of data could be timed with the news cycle to enhance positive news and downplay anything that might harm the company's reputation.

Today, however, much of the data about marketed products is generated and stored beyond the control of the manufacturers, whose ability to manage their reputation is further weakened. As real-world evidence becomes more pervasive - and a more critical component of reimbursement decisions - control of that data will reside with payers, providers, and analysts more than with Pharma manufacturers.

Additionally, considering the abundance of unstructured and often non-validated data communicated about a product through "new media" such as health-care chat rooms, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, it is easy to see how reputation management has become increasingly difficult for manufacturers to influence - let alone control.

Healthcare is one of the most popular topics discussed on the Internet. Chat rooms are full of patients, caregivers, and physicians discussing diseases, treatments, and side effects - all unregulated and often non-validated. While Pharma companies can monitor what people are saying, there's very little regulatory guidance on how they can and should participate. How should they be able to address misinformation? Do they have a duty to report side effects discussed in a chat room?

How Pharma companies manage their reputation in a world where the data is out of their control will be an increasing focus in the years ahead.

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