An infusion that saves the lives of patients suffering from a rare disease, an electronic cigarette, a child nutrition formula, hair straighteners, insecticides for crops and household sanitizers… There is a universe of products our bodies absorb in a wide variety of ways, and all are subject to more stringent regulations than other kinds of products. In most of the Western world, these regulations establish how an item is labeled, applied, packaged, sold, distributed and promoted… if the product in question is even allowed. In Brazil, the agencies, foundations and offices in charge of these regulations are housed within the Ministry of Health.
Despite the limitations regulatory agencies have imposed over the past five years -between the periods 2014/2015 and 2019/2020- we have seen how associations have become empowered, helped by the ubiquitous involvement of macro- and micro-influencers, as well as the inescapable world of social media. Thinking of political mobilization through the lens of social media was a novelty in 2011, when the Arab Spring changed North Africa’s status quo by organizing gatherings via Twitter.
A new setting
In this context, sharing economy companies like Uber and Airbnb have paved the way for the use of big data to acquire in-depth knowledge of and influence in and through their communities of interest. In turn, there is another sector—both traditional and innovative—exploring a road that, through advocacy actions, leads to a common and essential goal: Social license to operate.
After observing the Brazilian scenario and facing the growing demand for grassroots action, we have noticed a higher success rate in the pharmaceutical industry than other sectors. Positive regulatory response, even with restrictions, is considered essential for this success.
If volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are features of a world where success, or even the sole existence of a business increasingly depends on communication, aka the ability to engage, what challenges is the pharmaceutical industry successfully addressing that could serve as a benchmark for other sectors?
“The pharmaceutical industry is exploring a path that, through advocacy actions, leads to the most essential and common goal: obtaining its social license to operate”
Challenge 1: listening to and understanding communities
The first challenge for evolution arises from government and law-maker responses to the use of personal information obtained by apps and tools that gather, store and resend big data.
Apart from the legal aspect, which still forms the basis of discussions on how to enforce regulations in practice, these laws are a symptom of a broader awareness across different sectors of society regarding the collection and use of personal data for political or commercial purposes. There have already been signs of people rejecting certain social media and brands.
Challenge 2: protagonism
This response by the industry leads to the second challenge: Protagonism. Traditional grassroots campaigns or pre-Brexit political campaigns always engineered digital campaigns for a candidate or corporation with a clear selfish interest (winning an election or making profit), even though they could also result in potential benefits for the community.
In the case of the 2018 election campaign in Brazil, this was reflected by statements claiming “I am Bolsonaro’s caixa 2” on T-shirts or signs voters made to support their candidate. Sending political information over WhatsApp, was successful precisely thanks to the feeling of closeness with the supposed sender, who forwarded it to their direct contacts on a shared social network.
Thus, in the analyzed Brazilian cases, the solution adopted by the pharmaceutical industry by way of advocacy is far more sustainable.
Challenge 3: fake news
More than acting as a campaign catalyst or spokesperson, playing an educational role allowed the analyzed pharmaceutical companies to overcome the third challenge looming in today’s world: Fake news.
One example of the harm fake news has caused, both in society and among corporations, is the flare-up of diseases that appeared to be under control. A good example of this is the currently worsening measles outbreak and damage caused to vaccine companies as a result of the anti-vaxxer movement.
Part of the reluctance is the difficulty of finding a prominent figure or training specialists outside their sphere of direct influence, or that of the government’s. This highlights how disruptive it is for this sector—just like for most corporations—to follow the path of joining vertical knowledge and horizontal communication.
“Playing an educational role allowed the analyzed pharmaceutical companies to overcome the third challenge looming in today’s world: Fake news”
A disruptive path by nature
At the end of the day, we are all part of this scenario, alternately playing the roles of subject and object.
For the companies and sectors that choose to pave the way and contribute to the storylines that will have an impact on their businesses, this road’s nature is per se disruptive. This means there will be new challenges lying ahead, for which we must find new solutions.
On the other hand, it also means the lessons learned about the importance of being transparent, investing in information and giving up the spotlight are part of a legacy that may lead us safely into the future.