Historically, when times get tough, pharma companies start chopping their marketing and healthcare PR agency budgets with the proverbial axe. However, a Harvard Business Review study of 4,700 companies, found only 9% flourished after the three global recessions regardless of sector. The secret of their success? Carefully creating operational efficiencies while investing in the future (i.e. marketing/PR, R&D and new assets) when their competitors were cutting costs fast and deep.

Even Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft famously said: “If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on public relations.”

There’s a reason Gates values PR —  well, 5 reasons actually:

#1. Reputation Protection

If a pharma company isn’t telling its story, someone else is and it’s not always flattering. Or perhaps worse, a company’s story isn’t being told at all, leaving stakeholders jittery about the health of the organization and questioning if it’s even still in business. Also, in the event a crisis hits, it becomes even harder to control the message and influence public perceptions because an organization hasn’t communicated for so long.

While PR can often result in quick wins for pharma companies/brands with interesting stories, most need to invest in PR for the long-term. The positive halo effect of PR-generated endorsements pays dividends in customer loyalty, market position, corporate/brand reputation and most importantly, revenue generation. However, when budgets are cut, the momentum is lost, creating an enticing opportunity for a competitor to increase their share of voice, improve their reputation and whisk away hard-earned customers and prospects.

#2. Credibility and Trust

When times are tough, trust is more important than ever. If a pharma company or brand is not the secure, leading choice, stakeholders/customers will choose a competitor that is. While PR is not a silver bullet, it will build authentic relationships with existing audiences and help win over new ones. Assuming safety and efficacy data is relatively equivalent for mature drugs, would a physician choose Brand A that’s endorsed by their peers and medical/top-tier media or Brand B that they’ve only seen ads for? The answer is obvious. For new drugs, changing prescribing behaviour is like trying to push water uphill with a fork. Pharma companies need all of the awareness and credibility they can get to persuade physicians to prescribe something new.

#3. Share of Voice

Share of voice (SoV) is a lot like the stock market. When the market is up, everyone is piling in and when the market is down, most are skittish to invest even though that’s when there’s the most upside. Similarly, everyone is vying for SoV when times are good, but when times are tough and competitors are cutting back, this is the time to get in there and secure SoV and solidify a pharma company/brand’s position as the leader. There is a strong relationship between SoV and market share. Brands that cut their SoV to try to save a little money during a recession end up spending more during the eventual recovery to restore SoV and market share.

#4. Growth

While we are all obsessed with metrics, it’s important to zoom out of the world of impressions and conversions and focus on what’s positively correlated to driving the business forward (whether that’s sales, investment, etc). Last year, we had a client where an earned media campaign for the product launch contributed to the prescription target for the month being fulfilled in less than a week. While few major successes are stories of quick wins, they are useful to demonstrate how impactful PR can be. PR generally creates momentum that increases SoV over time, boosting market share.

#5. Cost-effective

PR is the most frugal and efficient method to market a pharma company/brand or disease awareness campaign. When paying for advertising, often one agency is paid to create the ad, another to buy the media and then there’s of course the expense of the ad itself. With earned media, only the PR agency is paid. Perhaps even more importantly, PR is more efficient than advertising because third-party endorsements cultivates credibility while contributing to SoV. Even with influencer marketing, which adds a layer of fees (generally less than media buys), there’s still the benefit of the third-party endorsement and SoV contribution.

While it’s important to have a balanced marketing mix, endorsements generated by PR are valuable because it’s the only tactic that continues to influence audiences long after a campaign has ended.