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There's very little margin for error in the biopharmaceutical industry — even, or especially, when it comes to corporate communications. At the same time, corporate communications teams are increasingly asked to do more with the same limited headcount and resources. In this environment, the strategic decisions you make to drive efficiency and effectiveness become even more crucial, and choosing the wrong external partner or investing in the wrong technology can result in more than just wasted time — it can also damage your brand's reputation.

 

Amy Baxter, MD, a pediatrician and founder/CEO of MMJ Labs, LLC, in Atlanta, Georgia — makers of the Buzzy pain blocker, an FDA-cleared medical device — learned this the hard way.

 

Her company was founded in 2006 and she explains that, early on, her team didn't have the bandwidth to manage the company's social media presence, so she decided to hire someone to manage their Facebook and Twitter accounts. "One day I, as CEO, got an angry email from a fellow physician. Our outreach advertiser had gone from reprinting Buzzy testimonials to trying to engage people with a 'vaccine: pro or con' clickbait line." As a health tech company with a pediatrician CEO, Baxter emphasizes that the company is clearly pro-vaccine, which meant that her advertiser's rogue campaign was a huge misstep.

 

That early lesson has changed the way MMJ Labs works with external partners, she says. Now, "we are writing into the contract that we screen 100 percent of the content before it's posted ... only an MD conversant in the most recent publications can make sure our messaging is consistent with science," she says.

 

If you're leading one of the many lean teams in biopharma communications, the following insights and tactics will empower you to focus on the initiatives that will make the strongest impact and develop successful strategic relationships with external partners. 

Doing more with less is an industry-wide challenge 

In 2014, Edelman conducted a Corporate Communications Benchmarking Study, surveying 36 companies to explore headcount, reporting lines and opportunities for improvement. The findings illustrate the types of strategic choices that communications leaders are forced to make when it comes to the structure, function, size and focus of their team. Key findings from the study include:

  • Staff size varied widely among respondents, with headcounts from 1 to 159; the average staff size was 35.
  • The greatest functional areas of emphasis for most communications teams were PR, media relations and internal communications; in biopharmaceutical companies, stakeholder relations was also a major area of focus.
  • The larger the organization, the more likely it is for corporate communications to be concentrated by function.
  • Looking ahead, the companies surveyed indicated that they were planning to increase their focus on digital capabilities, content creation and better alignment across functions and geographies.

With the proliferation of digital communication channels, an increasing number of functional areas of responsibility and additional challenges — and opportunities — on the horizon, today's communications leaders, perhaps more than ever before, have been tasked with doing more with less. To stay successful, you need a solid strategy in place to help drive resourcing decisions and enable you to manage your team (both internal and external) to achieve your desired outcomes. 

Making smart, strategic decisions 

When you're operating with limited internal resources, one of the biggest decisions you can make is whether or not to outsource certain tasks. Baxter notes that both strategies come with potential pitfalls: The risk of keeping all communication internal is stagnation, while the risk of hiring external staff is going off-brand. However, she is quick to highlight how strategic external partnerships can make a world of difference to lean communications teams. "Small organizations are often juggling many things; the flexibility to jump in can also mean daily tasks are overlooked," Baxter notes. "Good external contractors can provide the discipline of daily outreach, with internal biweekly review for quality that can be timed to fit around unexpected internal fires and deadlines."

 

For communication leaders, there are three main areas of governance: policies, standards and processes. These elements should drive all communication decisions and outputs — whether internal or external. When working with a lean team, follow these steps to optimize efficiency without losing effectiveness. 

Align your initiatives with your objectives 

If your organization has a formal strategic plan, be sure to review it and clearly map out how your communications will help drive these organizational objectives. For instance, if an organizational objective is to ease concerns about rising pharma costs, you may want to use social listening tools and market research to better understand the source and nature of the concerns before creating a targeted communications campaign to help assuage them. 

Identify your audiences and their preferred communication channels 

Develop a deep understanding of each of the key audiences you are seeking to influence. Research and profile those audiences so you can develop key messages that will resonate with them. Think beyond the obvious audiences to identify important, and perhaps, narrow niche audiences of key influencers who are aligned with your communication objectives.

 

Next, you need to identify the communication channels that will most effectively reach each key audience at a time and place when they are likely to be amenable to receiving your messages. For example, Facebook is likely not the best communication channel for many pharma-related messages, but various clinical groups or listservs may very well be. 

Identify knowledge, skills and technology gaps 

Create an inventory of the competencies that you need to achieve your objectives, then ask yourself: Which competencies exist among my current staff? Which will I need to acquire? In addition to auditing your internal staff's competencies, you should also consider how technology (existing or potential) could help create efficiencies or fill gaps. 

Decide whether to hire or outsource

When determining whether to "build" (hire) or "buy" (outsource), a cost-benefit analysis can be helpful. For instance, the need for and cost of having an on-site search engine optimization (SEO) specialist may warrant an on-site position; the need for an app developer may not. Beyond cost and the demand for the skills, other considerations would include: how widely available the skill set is in your area (which may suggest the need to hire virtually), the sensitivity of the work being done and the need for internal interaction and collaboration to perform the work. And, as Baxter discovered, another critical consideration is the risk and cost of potential errors. 

Maintain consistency 

Above all, take steps to ensure that all communications are on brand and consistent. "Keeping an up-to-date Brand Guide to ensure consistency, while being willing to OK short-term approaches to see what resonates, [can help you] balance risks and benefits," Baxter advises. With policies, standards and processes firmly in place, and a clear line of sight between communication activities and organizational outcomes, communications leaders can learn to manage teams, however lean, to achieve the desired results.

Linda Pophal, MA, SHRM-SCP is owner/CEO of Strategic Communications, LLC, and a marketing and communication strategist with expertise in strategic planning, PR/media relations, social media and SEO and corporate communications. Linda is the author of several books on marketing and business practices. Pophal is an accredited member of SHRM, IABC and the American Marketing Association.

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