4 Tips for Engaging Online Health Advocates

By Kelly Kutchinsky, Senior Vice President

Gone are the days when a patient is diagnosed with a disease and relies solely on the advice of a physician, and maybe family and friends, to help live with that diagnosis.  Just like almost every other part of life, personal health has become social! Not surprisingly, patients in need of everything from treatment recommendations to emotional support are seeking that knowledge and interaction online. For pharmaceutical or medical device companies, it is essential to recognize the power and influence of online health advocates in reaching the patients you seek to treat and support.

According to Pew, Internet users with chronic conditions are more likely than other online adults to turn to the web for information about medical problems, treatments and drugs; to look at reviews about drugs and treatments; and read or watch other people’s personal stories about their illnesses. This fact alone should convince communications or marketing professionals to invest in social advocacy engagement as part of their marketing communications plan.

So how do you build relationships with online health advocates?

  1. Identify the influencers. Who is the most influential blogger in diabetes, or where are patients with inflammatory bowel disease going to find support? No matter what disease or condition your company is focused on, the key to finding the most influential online advocates is visiting the social communities and networks where patients go themselves. By conducting a thorough analysis of patient advocacy organizations, their social platforms, online patient communities and individual blogs and microblogs, the most influential voices among your patient community will start to rise to the top.
  1. Follow and share. Once you’ve identified who the most influential online advocates are, start following their blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds… really all their social platforms. “Like” their posts and share relevant content via your personal and corporate social media networks. Demonstrate that you are listening and interested in what they have to say.
  1. Listen to their needs, and offer solutions. Once you’ve started following an online advocate and sharing his or her content, it’s time to make an introduction and start a dialogue. Remember, it’s a relationship, so ask questions and listen. What does he or she see as the biggest need for the patients or caregivers living with that disease? How can your company address that need? Start working together to provide solutions and answers that reach those in need.
  1. Keep them in the loop. Are you planning the launch of a new campaign? Ask your new friend’s opinion of planned activities and enlist his or her help to improve upon them. Is a new indication on the horizon for the brand? Keep online health advocates informed of regulatory actions and offer the most influential advocates exclusive access to leadership to discuss the news. And let us not forget that in the life of every company or brand, there comes a time when things aren’t so sunny. When a product or company issue arises, turn to these online advocates to share your side of the story and seek their support in addressing the challenge with the patient community.

Remember that building relationships with online advocates (like any relationship) requires time, trust and commitment. Tonic can be your matchmaker, relationship coach and counselor throughout the process. Give us a call!

3 Reasons Pharma Companies Should Turn to PR Amid Changing DTC Guidelines

By Theresa Dolge, VP, Media Director

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of drugs in the U.S. was born in 1985 but really exploded more than 10 years later when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) eased up on its rules about reporting side-effects in television commercials.  Fast forward to 2014 and guess how much was spent on DTC ads in the pharma space?  Nearly $5 billion!  Life was really good in DTC drug land until February of this year when the FDA announced it would again change its policy on reporting drugs risks so that consumers could actually understand them.

So what did FDA actually say about this?

  • Well, first they want drug companies to simplify their DTC print ads by summarizing a drug’s side-effects in layman’s terms
  • Second, they are suggesting (but not yet mandating) that companies ditch the long list of side-effects from radio and TV ads and only include the “most important” ones (translation: scary side effects like death that companies don’t necessarily want front and center)
  • Lastly, FDA says drug makers are free to experiment with formatting, although they recommend Q&A’s and “Drug Facts” boxes

Prior to the existence of DTC advertising, there was another communications discipline that was critical to the launch of new medications (and indications): public relations (PR).  While PR is still very much involved, it often takes a backseat to the larger DTC advertising companies that command larger budgets and more staff.  As the FDA works to change how DTC ads are communicated, the role of PR – which has clear guidelines for including fair balance and prescribing information – becomes even more essential.

Here are three ways PR can help drug companies not only relay the benefits of a new medication, but do it in a responsible and credible way:

  1. PR teams forge meaningful relationships with patient advocacy groups to help educate about new drugs and disease categories
  2. Physicians work regularly with PR groups to provide their insights for the creation of healthcare communications programs
  3. There has been a longstanding relationship between PR people and the media so information can be accurately conveyed to the public

Health literacy remains a major issue in our country; there is an ongoing and growing need for PR to help educate and destigmatize disease, which would ultimately expand the drug market.  A message’s credibility is greater when delivered by unbiased third parties than by those seeking to profit from it, hence why PR is a communications tool that works – and works well – in this market.  As the FDA continues to evaluate DTC advertising guidelines, drug companies could better maximize their budgets and the reach of their messages if they consider using or increasing PR.