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Pharma the Philanthropist

Words by James Coker

Modesty is almost universally seen as a virtue, but taken too far can prevent credit being given where it is due and lead to a perception that a person is not motivated by the purest of intentions. Such a scenario could be occurring in the pharmaceutical industry in regard to their vast philanthropic work, which invariably stays out of the limelight. Public trust in the sector is an ongoing issue, highlighted by a Gallup poll in the US last year which found pharma’s reputation to be bottom of a list featuring 25 prominent industries. It is surely time for the industry to be more open and transparent in communicating its charitable endeavours, helping counterbalance unfair perceptions. Doing so in a clear and non-self-promotional way is a skill that must be harnessed throughout the sector.

Many now expect companies to align and engage with ethical and moral causes. In this respect, pharma has one of the best records in the corporate world, regularly initiating and partaking in endeavours ranging from screening programmes to the training of healthcare professionals, often in the poorest regions of the globe. “The pharmaceutical sector has historically been considered as one of the most charitable of industries,” notes Melissa Walsh, Vice President of Corporate Responsibility and Global Philanthropy, AbbVie.

However, creating widespread awareness of philanthropic endeavours is something pharma companies are far less accomplished at. “There’s a reluctance from companies to garner attention for the industry’s charitable and philanthropic work,” says Walsh. “Communicating about philanthropic work can mistakenly be seen as an attempt to distract from the real and important dialogue on healthcare challenges that exist today.”

Another reason for this restraint is fear that the activity will be perceived as a hard-headed business decision, prompted by an underlying commercial purpose. “If there is a perception that there is a motive behind the charity which is related to some kind of return on investment or intention of promotion, the value of the gesture is questioned and this results in limited communication,” outlines Prodromos Anthopoulos, Head of International Medical Affairs & European Medical, Arena Pharmaceuticals.

It is time to put any false modesty aside. It does not benefit anyone, neither the industry itself nor the very people the efforts are designed to help. “A key benefit of creating visibility around philanthropic initiatives is driving increased awareness around important work that our charitable partners are doing around the world,” says Walsh. “If the communication is done right, it will result in further support for non-profits, creating an impact in critical areas such as education, community building, and sustainable healthcare systems.”

Other benefits can accrue in areas such as staff recruitment and retention. “If done right, spreading awareness will instil a sense of pride amongst your employees and the community. It’ll also tell the world what your company stands for and how you are taking action as a responsible member of society,” adds Walsh.

Avoiding any hint of self-interest whilst raising awareness of their philanthropic work is not an easy message to convey, but can be delivered with a careful, considered approach. Walsh advises: “Be authentic and stay close to your non-profit partners. Make the communication about the work and not about how great you are for doing it. Listen to your community and philanthropic partners on the challenges that they are facing and work together to address them.”

Make the communication about the work and not about how great you are for doing it

Treating each case on its own respective merit is another good rule of thumb. “The tone can be proud and strong when the charitable activity is disconnected from the therapeutic area of interest for the company and even more when not directly related to patients, diseases, health systems, e.g. school donations, support of environmental movements, etc.,” explains Anthopoulos. “This is different from communicating an activity that aims to support the area in which the company does business. Transparency, clear objectives, and honesty define the relations and the acceptance of the gesture in these cases without undermining the benefit. This has different characteristics and therefore the tone needs to be more discreet.”

A natural nervous reticence on the part of pharma when it comes to communicating its philanthropy is on one hand understandable, but it misses a golden opportunity to enhance the industry’s reputation, as well as to help gather support for the vital work being delivered.

Pharma’s altruistic side should no longer remain hidden in the shadows, out of sight and mind of the public. By adopting the right tone at the right time, pharma can prevent individual controversies from defining the industry’s image and help paint a much fairer picture of their motivations and value to society.

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