Test tube row. Concept of medical or science laboratory, liquid drop droplet with dropper in blue red tone background, close up, macro photography picture.
Corporate Reputation

Once upon a time…

The ABPI is using storytelling to promote the story of Britain's pharmaceutical industry

Pan across a high-tech, state-of-theart laboratory. Young scientists monitor flickering data screens. Images of NHS staff caring for patients fade into the background as we cut to scan across the faces of children at a science lesson. Voice-over: Medicine offers one of the greatest hopes we have for the future of human health.

This is the story of the pharmaceutical industry currently being developed by Aileen Thompson, executive director of communications at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), the biggest trade body representing research-based pharma companies in the UK.

Just over 12 months into the role and Thompson is rolling out one of the most innovative campaigns delivered by the ABPI to tell the ‘story’ of pharma in a bid to improve the reputation of the industry.

‘Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of organised communication, one of the most effective ways of sharing information and making sense of the world we live in,’ she explains. ‘By telling the story of how medicines are developed and funded, the benefit of the pharmaceutical industry to the UK’s health and wealth, the dedication and commitment of the amazing, talented people discovering and developing new medicines and the challenge and opportunities new science will bring us, we can shine a new light on the industry and its importance in the UK and bring to life its value.’

Working with London-based Lexington Communications, Thompson and her nine-strong in-house team of public affairs, media and communications specialists are focused on improving the industry’s reputation through the storytelling model.

This approach includes an emotive film looking at the advances made in medicine, the benefits to patients and the almost infinite possibilities of scientific development in the future as well as content development, proactive media and social outreach and a thought leadership programme with an ‘open doors’ policy.

‘No topic is off limits,’ says Thompson. ‘Our aim is to open up discussion and debate about all aspects of this industry in which people are fascinated and curious. With our members we want to open doors and break down historical barriers to give not only intellectual but physical access to the industry to show how it works and what motivates those who work in it.’

However, Thompson, who spent the earlier part of her career agency-side with large pharmaceutical companies as clients, concedes: the industry story will only be a success if pharma sticks with it.

‘This is not a quick fix,’ she says. ‘Whilst we all know reputations can be broken overnight improving them can be a long, slow burn. Developing confidence and building trust requires time in order to create the understanding and mutual respect that drives it.

‘Over the years a number of approaches have been tried – working closely with members, we believe that basing communications on the authentic stories of industry’s success will help the public, healthcare professionals and government understand the role we play and our commitment to helping the NHS deliver better patient outcomes.

‘We’re realistic enough to know this is a multi-year approach in order to see the needle move and industry reputation improve.’

With our members we want to open doors and break down historical barriers to give not only intellectual but physical access to the industry to show how it works and what motivates those who work in it

This is a needle, which, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, has remained static during the past couple of years, placing the pharmaceutical industry right in the middle of the pack of the 15 industries compared across 27 nations. Where trust in the technology and electronics industries dropped noticeably in 2015, trust in pharma remains broadly consistent year-on-year above industries like media, banks, financial services and energy and below the automotive, entertainment and food industries.

‘There is a pervading perception that the industry reputation is considerably worse than the reality we see in surveys such as this,’ says Thompson. ‘In some respects this makes our task easier as we clearly have a shorter journey to make, particularly amongst audiences that are more closely connected with the industry.’

The ABPI’s own research, which was undertaken in 2014 with research consultancy ComRes, shows that healthcare professionals and medical students are more familiar with the industry and view it as considerably more trustworthy than the public who are less familiar and equally less trusting of pharma.

‘By listening to the audiences that matter most to us – healthcare professionals and the public – we know that the highest levels of trust come from those with the most interaction with us,’ says Thompson.

‘Within these groups, industry is held in higher regard among healthcare professionals for its work in innovating and developing new medicines that help people live longer. They see us driving the UK’s scientific reputation and contributing to the UK economy. In short they ‘get us’ and know the impact that pharma is making to the health and well-being of the nation.

‘Our challenge now is to tell this story so that those audiences with less interaction with industry also understand the great work that goes on and the value we bring. This is where the storytelling approach will have the greatest impact.’

New research released this month by PatientView shows that pharma’s reputation amongst patient organisations is at its best since the survey began in 2011, with almost 45 per cent of those groups asked stating the industry has an ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ corporate reputation. The main driver for this is the industry’s delivery of high-quality products of value to patients.

Whilst debate rages over the pricing of these products – with UK patients amongst the most aggrieved about the cost of medicines – Thompson believes that through this new approach to reputation management, patients and the public will start to view the story of these medicines with greater understanding of how they are made and the cost/value implications.

Just one in 5,000 molecules make it through the process. That means some of the industry’s most talented and dedicated scientists can spend their whole careers without hitting a ‘big break’ and cracking the science needed to cure or treat the world’s most life-threatening and debilitating diseases

‘The journey from idea to implementation of a treatment for care comes with both considerable scientific uncertainty and risk,’ says Thompson. ‘As a non-scientist, the fact that most ideas never make it through to a patient, although they do play a role in the progress of science, is sobering. This journey can take between ten and 12 years, with clinical trials alone taking six to seven years on average. Some industry analysts have calculated average costs for developing and licensing a new medicine at well over £1 billion.

‘Just one in 5,000 molecules make it through the process. That means some of the industry’s most talented and dedicated scientists can spend their whole careers without hitting a ‘big break’ and cracking the science needed to cure or treat the world’s most life-threatening and debilitating diseases.

‘We need to tap into that – the blood, sweat, emotion, time and money that goes into making medicines – and ensure everyone understands how it’s done and the difference it makes.’ After pricing, ‘unacceptable corporate behaviour’ has the biggest impact on pharma’s reputation. This includes a lack of transparency.

As with all industries, and perhaps more so because of the emotional impact of illness and the unique nature of pharma’s relationship with the UK’s health system, the demands on pharma for increased openness around its activities are high.

‘Historically the perception has been that this industry has operated largely behind closed doors but, with shifts in societal demands and the scientific drivers to develop more targeted and personalised medicines, increased openness is currently number one on the agenda,’ adds Thompson.


The ABPI is delivering a number of industry-wide initiatives designed to bring greater transparency to the way it works with a range of stakeholders. The largest and most ground-breaking of these is Disclosure UK – a database, which launches in June, that details payments and benefits-in-kind made to UK healthcare professionals and healthcare organisations by the industry.

The relationship between pharma and healthcare professionals is long-standing. In the UK, this brings together the public and private sectors; the theory and practice of healthcare science, which together make a difference to the lives of people worldwide.

These relationships have led to the eradication of some diseases. The discovery of vaccines, has meant some diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and cancer, which once were almost certainly terminal, are now manageable ones, while offering other patients, with long-term conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, the chance to live long and happy lives.

Both industry and healthcare professionals agree that working together is absolutely necessary for the advancement of medicines and treatments. But until just a few years ago these relationships were rarely discussed and when they were, it was within the context of outdated stereotypes of ‘big pharma’ practices of more than two or three decades ago.

‘There is no doubt that historical practices of the industry continue to affect perceptions today,’ says Karen Borrer, head of reputation at the ABPI, who is charged with leading the delivery of Disclosure UK.

‘The steps we’re making to be more open signals change and supports our story. As we make details of industry interactions with health practitioners increasingly more open we hope we will earn the right, through developing trust, for industry’s achievements, value and commitment to be recognised.’

The story is moving on to a new chapter. Rather than the amount industry spends working with health practitioners – approximately £40 million in 2014 – it now looks at why and how health has improved as a result.

It also sets the scene for industry to take a step back and look at the way it works with health practitioners to see if these relationships and collaborations can be done differently in future.  ‘We have an exciting story to share,’ says Thompson, ‘and the time is right for us to start telling it with confidence.’

For more information about Disclosure UK visit www.disclosureuk.org.uk or www.abpi.org.uk



•     £917.5 billion ($1.2 trillion) – the amount global pharmaceutical sales is expected to generate by 2018. It crossed the $1 trillion milestone in late 2014

•     12 to 13 – the average number of years it takes for a medicinal product to reach the market after the first synthesis of the new active substance

•     £1.8 billion – the cost of developing a prescription drug that gains market approval, according to the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development

•     £128,000 – the gross value added to the UK economy per employee in the pharmaceutical industry in 2013

•     £724 – the amount America spends per person on pharmaceuticals each year, the most of the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

•     £363 – the average amount OECD countries spend on pharmaceuticals per person

•     70,000 – the approximate number of people directly employed by the pharmaceutical industry in the UK, as of 2014, including 57,000 in companies discovering, developing and marketing medicines

This article first appeared in issue 104