Ogilvy Health's new PR practice chief talks pharma image and social trends

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Ogilvy Health taps new head of public relations as agency leans into new era of pharma branding and social media. (Getty Images)

There’s a shifting focus in pharma public relations from image to impact, says Ogilvy Health’s new PR practice president.

Shannon Walsh, recently tapped to lead public relations at the agency, talked about the subtle change now underway. The move from "What do people think about my company?" to "How can my company make an impact?" is something many pharma companies are exploring as the world moves past the pandemic.

“We’re seeing a lot of clients looking deep and saying, ‘OK, what do we stand for? Where can we give back and continue to drive the narrative that we’re really here to help patients when they need us?’” Walsh said.

While the image-to-impact shift certainly reflects lessons from the pandemic, it also embraces broader societal changes that were underway well before 2020. Younger generations have made it clear they want the companies and brands they use everyday to also do good in the world.

RELATED: Pharma PR in a pandemic? Speed, clarity and accuracy count during unintentional stress test

“At the end of the day, patients want to believe in a company and they want to see the good that they’re doing,” Walsh said. “Yes, they want their drugs to work of course, but people also want to believe in the impact that these companies are making.”

Pharma companies are embracing those ideas: Environment, social and governance (ESG) measures are on the rise in the industry and are tracked more closely than ever by investors and other stakeholders.

Specific examples include Pfizer’s “Science Will Win” and Johnson & Johnson’s “Janssen Never Stops” efforts, which offered not only feel-good hope but also a promise of pandemic relief last year.

More recently, Eli Lilly debuted its first corporate campaign during the Olympics with a forthright appraisal of health inequities in the U.S. and a call to do better.

Another example in a specific therapy area is Ogilvy Health PR’s own work with Bristol Myers Squibb on a recent multiple sclerosis campaign. The unbranded music therapy effort, from the maker of newly approved med Zeposia, offered help for patient with music-related lessons, meditations and exercises—versus a traditional laundry list of drug benefits.

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Another important and constantly changing trend in PR on Walsh’s radar is social media. These days, that means TikTok, and yes, that means TikTok for pharma, too.

“Pharma is always a couple of steps behind what’s on trend, because we have to work out a lot of regulations and restrictions before using those channels, but I do think that TikTok is one we’re going to be able to use as a video creation platform, I’m sure,” she said.

Whether it's TikTok or whatever will be the next big thing for social media, Walsh, who’s been at Ogilvy for 16 years and in healthcare PR for almost 25 years, plans to stay focused on content. Whether using influencers or patient ambassadors, the key to good pharma PR success is credible sources and “generating the right content in an authentic way.”