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The phrase “halcyon days” derives from Greek mythology. Aeolus, god of wind, would protect his daughter from stormy winds for seven days each year. She had been transformed into a kingfisher-like halcyon bird and needed his protection to make her nest on a beach each year. Thus, halcyon days are happy, successful (and storm-less) periods of time.
There can be no doubt that the reputation of the pharma sector has left choppier waters. It has been rehabilitated by the emergence of effective Covid-19 vaccines, giving it a once-in-a-generation chance to claim significant reputational – and commercial – gains.
That positive impact could be seen tangibly, emotionally and statistically during the pandemic. From vaccine data to case studies of survival and deep-dive profiles of the scientists, doctors and nurses making a difference, this was wholesome reputational recovery.
Time is of the essence: already, talk is emerging of a ‘softening’ of pharma’s reputation as attention on Covid subsides and old perceptions start to come into the foreground. The winds of challenge and negativity are returning.
Preventing those perceptions from dominating sentiment is really important. Pharma companies large and small have a critical role to play – as do biotech businesses – in shaping society. This has always been true, of course, but now most stakeholders, from investors to patients, have a fundamental interest in what that means in practice.
Pharma companies that successfully create links between science and society stand to gain most. This is perhaps most acutely seen in Latin America, where many emerging markets are experiencing serious health and economic challenges.
In LATAM, Covid has led to high excess deaths in many nations, with Peru and Chile topping the global list of deviation from expected deaths. Many Latin American nations were devastated by Covid waves in 2020 and 2021 and are still recovering.
These emerging markets are simultaneously dealing with health systems that are still developing and growing. In some cases, patients of certain conditions will be getting access to treatment for the first time as new drugs and technology find their way into their health systems. It is a region where health, economics and social progress are deeply, perpetually intertwined.
Pharma can learn from the pandemic. To continue its reputational recovery, it needs tangible evidence to demonstrate how it can support change. The obvious territory here are drugs pipelines, trials data or other positive pharma outcomes.
But the sector must now go further than this. It must also show its social, human impact. With health systems creaking, giving pharma a face – and a heart – has never been more important. In so doing, pharma companies become socially relevant and harder to distrust.
Our analysis of global social media mentions points to an arresting drop in emphasis on some of these things. Across the board, the volume of mentions of some of the positive themes associated with the pharma industry is declining – and fast.
This isn’t really about Covid anymore, either. Whether in LATAM or elsewhere, most nations have a backlog or shortage of diagnostics, treatment and investment. This has real consequences for health systems whose infrastructure has been damaged or strained by Covid. The impact on society is there to see in missed appointments, delayed surgeries and the knock-on consequences of this.
Thus, pharma companies must acknowledge that their role is not purely scientific, or medical. It is as much economic as it is societal. It is macro and micro. The opportunity lies in getting stakeholders, patient groups, governments and the corporate community to see the wider positive benefits of pharma just as they have done with recently with Covid.
The fruits of reputational gains are substantial. To return to South America, pharma growth in LATAM has matched the severity of the challenge: there are many examples of companies posting double-digit growth in sales, and the entire LATAM market is predicted to grow by 7% to hit US$76 billion in 2023.
Pharma has proven its worth, by demonstrating collaboration, commitment and huge societal impact throughout the pandemic. Cementing perception change is now about ensuring everyone understands pharma more clearly. In so doing, when the Covid lens is finally removed, our vision of the industry remains clear, positive and rooted in social benefit.
If you would like to discuss how Grayling can help your healthcare business improve its reputation through business-critical, creative communications, contact Kathryn Ager