Why pharma should widen communications and embrace AI

As communications leaders from across the UK and international pharmaceutical sector met last week at PR Week’s PharmaComms Conference, it was an opportunity to reflect on how effectively the sector is engaging audiences and what, if anything has really changed since Covid.

The high watermark of openness and audience engagement that we saw during Covid 19 seems to be ebbing away and replaced with greater caution. In a sector that is notoriously risk-adverse, there is still a palpable sense that when the sector is talking about audiences, it is prioritizing regulators, healthcare professionals and governments, rather than the public and patients.

The sector’s trade body, the ABPI, has already recognised that patients are strangely missing from so much of the sector’s communication. The organisation has since instigated a range of commitments to ensure a strong partnership approach with the NHS and patient groups through meaningful collaborations, and ensure the patient voice is listened to throughout, including via a new advisory council.

Patients remain a difficult audience for this highly regulated sector and of course cannot be considered as one homogenous group. Pharma companies are reticent to stray away from anything other than carefully referenced facts. Yet, patient stories and true patient engagement are key facets of communication within the sector and need to be fully embraced.

The good news is that some part of the sector do seem to be embracing new technology, albeit with hesitancy. However, the industry seems content to limit and control content outreach, limiting the number of social media channels they use. Many sectors would follow a similar pattern, but that’s a pity because large swathes of the younger population are being missed and lacking engagement. The industry complains of a lack of trust and inability to address messaging around issues such as vaccines, as we’ve seen with the recent rise in Measles cases yet won’t use all of the channels at its disposal to help dispel myths.

As AI is adopted across the communications industry, it was good to hear that many in the sector are already using it as a creative and productivity tool. Nevertheless, it seems too early to show tangible outputs about how this might shape or change the way we deliver communications to patients. The sector knows that AI is here to stay, so the challenge is how to adopt AI safely into communication creation and channels.  Engaging communications agencies, such as Grayling, can help the sector understand the potential benefits of AI in communications.

If the pharma industry is to re-engage the public and maintain its credibility, it needs to focus on patients and genuine collaboration with health services and patient advocacy groups – at each stage of the drug development pathway. The sector’s been slow to adopt new channels of communication, leaving it struggling to control narratives and engage younger audiences. It’s time for the sector to evolve its communications further and take an audience-first approach that engages patients and the wider population.