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The Growing Role of Public Affairs in the Life Sciences Industry

Drug pricing. FDA user fees. Supply chain and production issues. Vaccine hesitancy. Oversight woes.

The life sciences industry can feel chaotic at times with uncertainty seeping from both sides of the aisle in Washington DC. Companies are struggling to keep up with prospective industry changes and legislation. Some are spending record amounts on lobbying and advocacy efforts. For numerous biotech and life sciences companies, engaging in public affairs is increasingly important to meet or exceed business goals.

But What is Public Affairs?

Public Affairs combines government relations, media communications, issue management, strategic planning, corporate responsibility and strategic communications counsel. It aims to influence public policy, build and maintain reputations and find common ground with stakeholders. Public Affairs connects the voice and values of the life sciences industry with external partners and government.

Let’s look at two key pillars of public affairs work that the life sciences industry is leveraging amidst the uncertainty companies now face every day.

Pillar One: Advocacy

Advocacy is a key part of public affairs. Often, the first area public affairs professionals think about relative to advocacy is lobbying. Lobbyists are individuals who are paid to discuss a certain item with a government employee – including legislators, regulators and their staff – to secure a desired outcome for their employer or client. Industry media has documented the significant increase in lobbying spending by the life sciences industry in recent months. Notably, there was ample coverage around AbbVie’s record spending on government relations (a spiffed-up term for lobbying activity).

Lobbying is an effective tool to influence members of Congress, but those members are elected by their constituents who have their own opinion on health care policy such as those who:

  • care deeply about access to what seems to some like niche health care issues, such as the current mental health care access crisis, or
  • need access to medically necessary drugs, or
  • a professional association trying to ensure equitable access to care like the various coalitions seeking to guarantee coverage for telehealth services.

Advocacy played a major role in the recent controversy surrounding Aduhelm, the Alzheimer’s drug developed by Biogen. When the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) decided to cover the drug only for a tiny portion of the population – those who had been enrolled in clinical trials for the drug – despite FDA approval the previous year, advocacy organizations immediately stepped up. Not only did they mobilize publications like STAT to advocate for better coverage by publishing opinion pieces slamming the decision, they utilized television and radio advertising as well as social media campaigns to draw attention to the issue. The coverage mobilized thousands of individuals impacted by the disease to advocate to their members of Congress, CMS and other key decision makers. CMS ultimately decided to keep coverage to a limited pool, however this advocacy drummed up noise and built awareness.

Advocacy campaigns are often most effective with coalition building. Together, advocacy coalitions and industry associations increase the volume of their collective voices. Take a look at the Digital Therapeutics Alliance, a coalition with a clear mission and vision to elevate access to and understanding of digital therapeutics. They have a solid membership base. And they have concise goals and messages. Earlier this year, they used their collective power to advocate for new bipartisan legislation that would expand access and appropriate reimbursement for digital therapeutics.

Looking to expand your advocacy initiatives? MacDougall provides advocacy services to clients including:

  • public policy analysis
  • advocacy campaign plan development
  • materials development and coaching
  • guidance on 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 incorporation
  • strategic planning

Pillar Two: Communications

While lobbying and advocacy are effective public affairs tools, communications expertise, particularly crisis communications, is an essential component. In the above example, various parties employed crisis communications when CMS was deciding upon coverage for Aduhelm. This spring, health insurance companies experienced the need for crisis communications, too. The House Oversight Committee publicly called out nine insurance companies for failing to meet requirements set forth in the Affordable Care Act to supply contraceptives at no cost to a patient. The companies had approximately two weeks to impart information to the Committee or face further public scrutiny for their failure to provide critical health care.

Communications plays a vital role in such a scenario. Smart communicators would quickly develop a document with the information requested by the Committee to erase further public discourse about the potential violation as well as mitigate the risk of advocacy group mobilization.

In 2017, the Massachusetts legislature passed the Contraceptive ACCESS Law to ensure access to no cost contraception regardless of federal directives. A couple of years after its passage, media reports indicated shoddy rollout and minimal enforcement. As stories were written and advocacy organizations developed reports detailing patient experiences, insurance companies began to react. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts illustrated a smart response, both by showcasing its values through media statements but also proactively dedicating a portion of their website to educate providers and patients about the law. Effective communications – especially crisis communications in response to public outcry – is one of the most critical aspects of public affairs work.

MacDougall’s core services have always included communications, including crisis communications and media relations. With our new Public Affairs practice, our team can approach this work from new angles to meet clients’ evolving needs.

Adding Public Affairs to Your Communications Toolbox

Public Affairs enables an entity to effectively seek outcomes that require attention from government, public stakeholders and media. At MacDougall, we are grateful to have worked alongside clients to secure contracts, communicate with elected leaders, develop public affairs materials and more. Public affairs expertise is critical for companies to have in their communications toolbox – either in house or through consulting. Living in a world of uncertainty, MacDougall is here as your stable partner when it comes to your public affairs needs. Contact our team today.

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