Pharmaceutical companies-bound by guidelines that put a moratorium on campaigns for new products in the $4 billion direct-to-consumer advertising category-are hoping to skirt the issue by placing more pressure on their public-relations agencies to secure traditional media placements to start, or keep, the buzz about new products.
Several PR firms, who asked not to be identified because of their work for various drug makers, have confirmed that they have had discussions-ranging from "serious" to "informal"-about ramping up their efforts when a prescription medication is approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
That means getting more executives and more experts quoted in major newspapers and magazines and sitting across from Katie Couric on "The Today Show."
"We've had some talks with our client about what to do in lieu of DTC," said an executive at a major PR firm that handles a Top 10 pharmaceutical company. "The companies are looking at broader ways of delivering a message. I don't think they're `skirting' their DTC restrictions."
The voluntary code of conduct for DTC advertising issued last month by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), and adopted by 23 drug makers, calls for "an appropriate amount of time to educate health professionals about a medicine or therapeutic condition before commencing the first DTC advertising campaign." Some companies have taken it a step further and imposed their own guidelines, such as Bristol-Myers Squibb's ban on DTC promotions until a full year after a brand has been on the market.
"We have not increased our PR activities as a result of our recently enacted DTC code," said a BMS spokesman. "However, we won't rule out future increases in our PR activities."
Most other pharma companies either declined to comment or did not return a call to respond to the touchy issue. Critics already jumped on the vague wording of what an "appropriate amount of time" really means when PhRMA's guidelines were introduced.
"If done responsibly, we don't view these types of activities as `skirting' the code of conduct," said PhRMA VP-Communications Ken Johnson. "The new PhRMA guidelines are aimed at improving the educational value of DTC advertising, but there have been numerous other ways that companies, scientists and the medical community have reached out to patients."
The drug makers see the advantages of increasing their reliance on their PR companies. In IMS Health's most recent annual study on DTC's return on investment, the Pennsylvania-based pharmaceutical consultancy found in one case study that a brand that spent nearly $100 million on DTC generated an ROI of $3.20 per dollar spent. But that same brand received an ROI of $5.90 per dollar spent on the $6 million spent on PR.