Written by Matt Bennett, SVP & DC Practice Lead
We often have the opportunity and challenge of communicating about complex topics, seeking to bring perspective and information to key audiences about issues and industries that are constantly evolving. One of those issues dominating the news today is the cost of medicines. This is not only an important policy topic, but also a fascinating case study of communicating while a ranging storm of opinions surrounds you.
First, drug pricing cannot be understood in the context of a news story. It involves the pharmaceutical companies that discover, develop, and produce medicines, the insurance companies, the pharmacy benefit managers, both federal and state governments, pharmacies, hospitals, physicians and ultimately and most importantly, patients. All of these constituencies are making decisions every day that affect the price and cost of medicines (and it is important to remember that the price is not always the same as the cost, and who pays what to whom is a completely different post).
When something goes wrong in this machinery, the gears grind very loudly, policymakers get upset and patients can suffer. We saw this in action today and we can learn some very important communications lessons from what played out in Washington, D.C.
A hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee featured an acrimonious and hyperbole filled “discussion” of how medicines are priced and who is to blame for rising costs. The circus starred Martin Shkreli, the most hated man in the pharmaceutical industry for his behavior as CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals. Members of committee also questioned representatives from the FDA, Valeant Pharmaceuticals and the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association (PCMA).
Watching the live stream of the hearing was fascinating, but equally of note to communicators was the concurrent discussion on social media. Pharmaceutical industry reporters covered every word and smirk, some focusing on the facts, other on errors made by the members of the committee.
After several hours of questions and accusations, the debate continued to rage on Twitter. Mr. Shkreli, after asserting his Fifth Amendment rights and refusing to answer the committee’s questions, took to Twitter and insulted the committee. Then, other members of Congress engaged with him!
Imagine trying to communicate some basic facts about the complexities of drug pricing in this environment. I’ve worked in and with the pharmaceutical industry for years – representing several different companies and leading communications at PhRMA, the industry’s trade association. This sector is as complicated (or more) than any other industry. It is truly the collision of market dynamics, government regulation and moral imperatives. Add in protests, Presidential politics, Congressional attention, bad actors and media scrutiny and you have the recipe for a complete lack of understanding.
So what do we as communicators do? Focus on the influencers who really matter, deliver our messages with a laser focus on those constituencies and manage the surrounding noise. In these situations, you cannot overcome the storm, so all efforts should be directed at the small but critical subset that will ultimately decide the issue in question. At Racepoint, we find and track those influencers through FieldFacts, our proprietary technology that helps us identify, analyze and target the opinion makers who shape the policy conversation and need to hear the facts in cases like this one.
It is impossible and ill-advised to hide in storms like the one we see around drug pricing, but we can maximize our effectiveness with sound strategy and careful engagement.