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Opinion leader development: new resolutions for 2003

Published on 09/10/03 at 04:05pm

Opinion leader development is crucial to the pharma industry and likewise the pharma industry plays a pivotal role to provide services OLs would not get anywhere else. The responsibility of developing these relationships can either fall under the job description of the communications, public/professional relations or publications manager or is sometimes shared between these, the rest of the marketing team and their appointed communications agencies.

However, in many cases, such relationships are not managed to their best potential or their importance is underestimated. The industry might complain about being perceived as a way of making a fast buck by OLs but perhaps there is a shared responsibility: OLs need to understand the benefits they can gain from a long-term relationship with the industry and the industry needs to improve its strategy for developing such relationships.

New Year celebrations are only a few weeks away and the industry is wrapping up its 2003 plans. This might be the opportunity to review and adopt simple new resolutions to improve the quality of OL relationships, with a view to make it a beneficial investment for all. These resolutions are simple to say but it is the resolution to act that might not be so obvious

I will remember that successful OL development is about partnership

OL development should be perceived as a partnership and not a one-way, ad hoc process without consistency or follow up. To ensure the partnership is successful, relationships need to be stable, nurtured and maintained over time. This can be achieved through the adoption of simple rules. To avoid the dissemination of confusing communication from team members to your OLs, get the team together every quarter to review the status of the partnership and ensure communication remains consistent and co-ordinated. Keep in contact with OLs, even when you may not be working with them on specific activities. Remember also that they may have a long memory, are likely to know more about what is going on in the market than you do and may even have been involved with your product for longer than you have! Do not feel ashamed to ask their advice. These basic principles will contribute to ensure the relationship lies on mutually trusting and courteous grounds.

I will get to know my OLs better

Everyone likes to think someone has taken the time to get to know them. Keep informed of your OLs work: the studies they are involved in, the papers they write, the products they prescribe or believe in and the colleagues they respect/dislike. Remember to share information with your colleagues, such as medical advisor, clinical trials manager and professional services manager. Make your OLs life easier by working around their other commitments. Spare their time by recording all logistical information regarding their travel/accommodation preferences for congresses, days and times when they are usually unavailable and preferential contact numbers.

I will maintain the credibility of both the OL and my company

Credibility is what characterises OLs and it is in your interest to respect this. However, you should also be seeking credibility at your end. Work with a wide base of OLs and do not rely on the same people all the time: this will undermine their credibility, which benefits no one. Have the courage to tell unreasonable people to stop if they overstep the boundaries. Be straight and honest with them and you will gain respect. Finally, remember that OLs will see you and your colleagues as part of the same company, so do not bring internal fights to them.

I will remember to think carefully about matching OLs to activities

OLs are expert in their field but cannot be expected to necessarily be experts in all of yours. Identify areas of common ground. As part of your OL development plan, whenever you schedule an activity, think of the particular skills that are required and identify suitable OLs. Ask yourself simple questions: how comfortable is your OL when talking to the media? Can they handle difficult questions? Can they use lay language for consumer journalists?

Think also about the topic of your event and the messages you would like your OLs to convey. Are they the most suitable people to do the job? Is this really their field of expertise? Will they be comfortable answering questions on this topic? Again, a deeper knowledge of your OLs background and personality will help you address some of these issues. Training may be beneficial for both of you. Remember also that, at the end of the day, your goal is to obtain RoI. You know it and OLs know it too. For their benefits and yours, ensure you invest time and resources in the right people from the start.

I will remember that OLs are not an extension of the marketing department

OLs have independent opinions and this is the very essence of their credibility and influence. This independence should always be respected. It is acceptable for OLs to refuse to participate in your activity; they have the freedom of choice. It is also perfectly acceptable and common for them to have relationships with other pharma companies. It is in their interest as they do not want to be perceived as being associated to one company or another and they are not betraying you in acting as such. Finally, remember that OLs have their own professional commitments and have different priorities to yours. Do not monopolise their time but respect their lives.

I will consider how relationships may change in the future

Rumours about a potential collaboration between the FDA and the EMEA, and evolving EU regulations on promotion might affect relationships between pharma companies and OLs. Plan for the future. Build the OLs trust right from the start. As part of your development plan, identify up and coming stars in the field and develop innovative and challenging programmes for them. This will help establish firm links with future OLs, build trust and loyalty, and raise your profile as a leader in the field.

Think outside the box: remember that OLs are often not just doctors. Broaden your advocates network. In an ever more consumer-oriented world, people who have direct access to the public have an increasing share of voice. Whenever possible, develop multidisciplinary initiatives where all influencers are represented and can share their views, such as clinicians, patient groups, regulators and purchasers.

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