What next for pharma communications?

From exhibition stands the size of small villages to sponsoring symposiums and swanky coffee, there is a reason industry spends so much money on conference season every year.

The events give HCPs the time and space to reaffirm priorities, catch up with colleagues, and update their clinical practice, and they provide sponsors and exhibitors with an unparalleled level of access to their contacts.

They bring a disease community together, are an invaluable opportunity to build and maintain relationships, and a forum for the dissemination of crucial data and messages.

Or at least, they used to. COVID-19 threw a virus-shaped spanner in the works of conference season. Quite aside from the obvious infection control risks of packing thousands of people into lecture theatres and exhibition halls, HCPs were needed at their posts.

And so 2020 became the year of the online medical meeting – and there is no putting the genie back in the bottle.

Virtual learning success

Online learning has proved to be effective and convenient for HCPs who are more in need of medical education than ever, while also facing huge pressures on their time.


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Study leave has been cancelled across large swathes of the country, and departments have been left short staffed by illness, self-isolation and deployment. What’s more healthcare workers are juggling the same lockdown-induced increased family and childcare commitments as everyone else.

Switching from “IRL” to virtual education, then, has been something of a blessing for the time-poor clinician. But it completely changed a fundamental communication channel for the pharmaceutical industry overnight.

To their credit, organisers have tried to transfer the benefits of face-to-face meetings to the online world, offering digital exhibition areas, virtual meet and greet cafés and more. However, pharma has reported limited engagement to date.

Crudely put, it’s a lot harder to ignore someone in person than it is online. Conferences drive delegates to the exhibition on coffee breaks, stands have staff dedicated to making connections, and HCPs have the time to meet and talk. Replicating these things online is near on impossible.

Opportunities of a hybrid future

Most commentators agree that virtual medical education is here to stay – but HCPs say they miss the networking and support opportunities of conference.

The need to connect with others in the same position, to speak to someone who understands the trials and tribulations of day-to-day practice, is hard to satisfy online, but it is stronger than ever.

It means that the most likely future is a hybrid one, in which the annual community get together will become an intermittent pattern of virtual education and smaller networking events.

With the right strategy, this could be an opportunity for pharma to take a more targeted approach to communications.

Future strategies might include a mix of online symposiums to disseminate product and safety information, and involvement in the smaller events. These may well be more localised or single issue-driven, again allowing for more targeted strategies.

Investment in digital content creation and using social media to build and maintain relationships will also be key in this new landscape.

No one thing will be able to replace everything medical meetings once offered. But a hybrid model of medical education and networking could mean a devolution of communications – or a move away from the scattergun approach of conferences, towards a targeted strategy that gets the right information to the right person at the right time.


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The Henley Group is a B2B PR and comms agency, based in Henley-on-Thames, UK. We specialise in public relations, corporate communications, content marketing and social media for clients in the UK and overseas. Working on a consultative and strategic level, we advise, plan, produce and deliver engaging PR and content programmes for clients in a range of B2B sectors.