New Code of Conduct means more media opportunities

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Martin Palin, the managing director of Palin Communications, says changes to the Medicines Australia Code of Conduct create new media opportunities for companies.

Australian pharmaceutical manufacturers operate in a heavily regulated sector. The Medicines Australia Code of Conduct is one of the key documents that guide companies when promoting prescription products and interacting with healthcare professionals, health consumer organisations or the general public.

The latest edition of the Code – Edition 19 - became effective at the end of March.

It was launched at a tumultuous time for the industry given the impact of the pandemic, the fact lockdowns were being implemented and working from home arrangements had just started.

So, I’m wondering if people have really had a chance to tease out some of the subtle implications in the new Code.

PR with Principles

The latest Edition is much more principles-based. It is underpinned by a set of guiding principles and these advise the different sections throughout. This is quite a change as the previous version was very prescriptive – almost providing a menu of what was or wasn’t allowed.

One of the changes that really stood out to me was the way that interactions with media are handled.

A key aspect of the way prescription medicines are regulated in Australia is that they are not allowed to be promoted direct to consumers. Which is why you don’t see ads on TV for prescription medicines as you do in the USA or in New Zealand. The principle is that people should get their advice on prescription medicines from healthcare professionals, which of course makes perfect sense.

Section 13 in the previous edition of the Code directed that ‘media articles concerning specific prescription products must not be initiated by companies’. But it did allow manufacturers to do a ‘product-specific media release’ to consumer media outlets in some circumstances – typically when a medicine was newly registered by the TGA, had a change of indication, had been added to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) or to the National Immunisation Program (NIP).

Now that part of the Code hadn’t previously changed for a long time. Manufacturers and their agencies had for decades been doing media releases about new medicines or reimbursements – oftentimes in consultation with patients groups and other stakeholders.

The circumstances and news value varied, but PR agencies that specialise in healthcare were very familiar with these regulatory processes.

But Edition 19 is very different.

Striking a balance

There’s no longer a dedicated section about “Relationship with the Consumer Media” or “General Media Articles” and the reference to the circumstances in which you might be able to do a media release has been replaced with more principles-based guidance.

Media are now flagged as just another “relevant stakeholder” in Section 11.

No more “one bite of the PR cherry” as many in the industry used to call it at registration or PBS time.

In fact, companies are now permitted to communicate proactively or reactively with media, provided that interaction is not promotional, supports the quality use of medicines and is limited to information that may assist the media in doing their job.

From a PR perspective, I think there is a lot more flexibility in the new Code. If the company concludes that it makes sense to reference a prescription product in discussions with journalists about company pipelines, supply challenges or others issues – and the regulatory team thinks that can be done in an educational and non-promotional manner – then that is now within the principles of the code.

It’s the same with new research results. If a journalist is doing a story about the latest research into a therapeutic area then directing them to the latest research on a particular compound or product might be seen simply as helping them – in a non-promotional way – to do their job.

This is also great news for patients and the groups that represent their interests. There’s long been confusion about what product-specific details a company can share with patient groups. Now companies can keep patient groups up to date with the latest developments – as long as that contact is non-promotional and it is in the context of helping the patient group representatives do their job.

In short, it means companies are able to interact with the mainstream media (and other stakeholders) much more frequently – as long as they do it in a non-promotional manner.

The advice from Medicines Australia is that the frequency of contact is also relevant. For example – sending proactive product-related media releases every week is likely to be considered a promotional activity.

So now we’re in a much more flexible environment. It lets journalists do their job, lets manufacturers build relations with patient groups and brief stakeholders on non-promotional issues related to their prescription medicines.

It’s going to be interesting to watch because everyone was so conditioned to the one BIG PR bite of the cherry – that one big code-compliant push. Let’s see who is brave and innovative enough to explore the new opportunities

I get the feeling that code-compliant PR strategies for prescription medicines in Australia might be just about to change…..