Within any brand category lies a complex landscape of stakeholders, issues and public opinion. True – whether your focus is food and beverage, energy, technology or pharmaceuticals. For pharma, in particular, certain disease areas are more complex than others, and involve a wide range of variables that need to be managed and planned against on an ongoing basis.

Doctors, patients, caregivers, policymakers, regulatory bodies and many others create an environment that requires constant integration across sales, marketing, communications and many other workstreams. In addition, each stakeholder group poses unique challenges and plays integral roles in building brand awareness, equity and perception. While every brand benefits from issues scenario planning, several disease categories in particular, need to prioritize scenario planning (regardless of the life cycle status) to manage shifts or changes in reputation.

HIV and oncology, for example, are two disease categories that have a wide spectrum of news coverage, research, positive and negative perceptions, online forums and price battles that are ongoing. It’s imperative that communications teams (both in-house and agency team member) stay on top of the ever-shifting landscape, how their brand/company is being perceived plays a role in key news or conversation drivers, and the share of voice of key players. Scenario planning has the power to help companies and brands be part of the narrative when — not if — an issue arises. And, helps to keep internal partners aligned and focused on how to best address an appropriate response with all key audiences.

Differentiating Issues and Crises

Before your team sits down to begin the issues planning process, it’s important to gain consensus and understanding of the difference between issues and crisis management. While there is some overlap, crises are typically events that the company wasn’t prepared for that have the potential to immediately impact business and customers.

Issues, on the other hand, are (often regular) occurrences that almost every business must navigate. In pharma, there are certain disease categories where issues come up more often. From drug shortages, insurance coverage changes, manufacturing challenges, price shifts, and adverse events — these are a few examples that commonly surface. In most of these examples, the issue will affect a portion of the product’s target audience, and sometimes a widespread, business-impacting crisis. Nevertheless, without issues scenario planning, a pharmaceutical company runs the risk of missing the potential of having a voice when attention rises with reporters, thought leaders and other important stakeholders.

How to Scenario Plan

Just like preparing for a major milestone like an FDA approval, an advisory committee meeting or a disease awareness campaign launch, the right internal team members need to be kept informed of recommended communications approaches and recommendations. This typically includes team members in charge of both internal and external communications, along with other colleagues with a stake in communications planning and materials development and approvals (e.g., legal, regulatory affairs and medical). In addition, it is important to conduct research analytics to assess the current landscape, media coverage, key reporters, influencers and which target channels to follow and monitor.

When beginning the issues scenario planning process, here are several considerations to make regardless of the brand or disease category:

  • Begin the process early. It’s a good rule of thumb that before your product launches, you should have a scenario plan in place; ideally, this begins as soon as the company begins external communications during a pre-approval data or regulatory milestone for instance. Once it is already launched, you may be late, but it’s better late than never.
  • Use a visual format. Chart the potential scenarios against proposed reactive/proactive approach, needed materials and other noteworthy considerations. Keeping the plan in a visual layout helps colleagues’ reference during a time crunch. Lengthy, formal documents often sit on the shelf and are difficult to reference under deadline.
  • Continually review the plan. Remember that once the plan is in place, the work isn’t over. Keep a close eye on how the current landscape evolves over time to best inform how and when to update your plan, and to make sure you remain at the ready to reactively or proactively address situations.

When to Address an Issue

If an issue arises, companies need to reference the plan and be flexible. Make sure that the issue at hand is one that is actually relevant to your stakeholders or customers. It’s natural to want to react when any issue surfaces, but oftentimes many issues may never reach the eyes or ears of your actual stakeholders or customers; it might just be part of the white noise within which you sit each day. Addressing issues that don’t affect your audiences could actually cause the issue to escalate, when instead, your job is to keep the impact as minimal as possible. And it’s also a waste of valuable time and resources.

The best course of action when unsure for how to react to a recent issue is to take an active social listening and monitoring role, which is a specific tactic that should be addressed within your scenario plan.

While it’s nearly impossible to avoid issues, remaining prepared, vigilant and ready to react nimbly and collaboratively are valuable strategies for any communications team.

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