Donna LaVoieDonna LaVoie

Life science companies, including big and small pharma, biotech and health technology, continue the trend toward partnerships to research, develop and/or commercialize their innovations, allowing companies to enter new markets, continue niche disease research and development and introduce innovations sooner. Adding to the mix are accelerators and venture firms launching new companies into the health science and technology ecosystem.

Even though they are joining forces, and likely have the same end-goal, each of these companies will have a unique, and sometimes competing, set of communications and business goals.  They also may have different priorities on stakeholder mix. While it’s easy to default to the needs of the larger company, strategic communications entails finding ways to balance the needs of all parties in the transaction.

O'Dwyer's Oct. '17 Healthcare & Medical PR MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '17 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine

It makes perfect sense that “big pharma” and accelerator companies look to acquire potential commercially viable assets that can shave years off of their R&D efforts, and that biotech startups will look to these larger corporations to gain regulatory and marketing expertise along with the financial stability to keep pushing their assets forward, but the communications goals of the companies in dramatically different stages of their life cycles will vary greatly.

This atmosphere provides challenges for many organizations if they have not integrated their communications efforts across the various marketing and communications disciplines. It is incumbent on the strategic communications function and agency partner to help both the large and small company identify stakeholder priorities and balance their communications needs to ensure maximization of their IR, PR, social media and digital communications opportunities.

A solid communications strategy before, during and after a licensing transaction, accelerator or new company launch conveys a strong, clear and consistent message to both companies’ stakeholders, and also paves the way for patients, advocacy groups, partners, media and investors to learn more.

Here’s a recent example:

The situation

A relatively young life sciences accelerator operating company focused on development of pharmaceuticals and other technologies is preparing to support the operations and Series A launch of its first new company. The “newco” is an emerging biopharmaceutical company focused on discovering and developing first-in-class oral therapeutics for patients with autoimmune diseases, and has a lead asset which has shown promise for the treatment of autoimmune diseases by engaging a unique mechanism of action.

Leaders at the accelerator company and the biopharmaceutical company recognize the potential of the asset, but have different goals for the public launch of the newco. The accelerator company, led by a well-known industry veteran, wishes to use the launch to strengthen its reputation and attract additional financing and drug development partners. On the other hand, the CEO of the emerging biopharmaceutical company wants the public launch to shine the light on the research, the next steps for the asset, and the future of the company in the hopes of attracting additional financing.

How does a strategic communications plan promote the accelerator company, and also ensure the emerging company receives the kind of coverage it wants — despite two different storylines?

The solution

First and foremost, it takes an experienced team of communicators that not only understand the needs of emerging biotech companies, but can pull from perspectives of other types of organizations — both mid to larger as well as venture and philanthropically focused. Providing possible solutions to problems helps to bridge the communications gap between the two companies.

In this case, the best method to ensure both parties’ buy-in was a two-pronged pitch and social media approach that allowed the accelerator’s leadership to garner the national industry recognition it deserved, while directing the biopharmaceutical’s story to vertical trade publications and patient advocacy groups that would be more apt to write about the science. While both the accelerator’s and newco’s key messages were pulled through each other’s storylines to ensure a wide swath of coverage, the primary focus for each remained on the topics that mattered most to them. It sounds so simple, but getting both companies comfortable with that approach took a deft negotiating hand.

These skills, the experience to navigate through the often-bumpy currents of partnership communications, and the integration of the various disciplines, are important to the ultimate success of any partnership. Excellent negotiation skills and good communication, as well as relationships with other key functional areas, are essential to producing successful outcomes.

Ultimately, for this process to work, there must be up-front alignment with each company’s key stakeholders on the overall communications approach, an agreement on potential news flow and milestones, and a clear picture of what a successful communications plan looks like.

An effective communications strategy goes a long way toward helping organizations control their messages, and avoid misunderstandings during the acquisition or launch process. The following are a few key issues to consider when communicating an acquisition, in-licensing, or company launch:

Audience identification: Ensure that both companies clearly establish the key stakeholders for their news. Depending on the situation, these audiences may include: investors, business partners, the medical community, patient advocacy groups, community leaders and elected officials, as well as print/broadcast/digital media outlets — and maybe even consumers.

Consistent messaging: While the key messages should be uniquely tailored to each company’s audience, these messages must be determined up-front and in conjunction with both parties, to ensure there are no surprises in how each is represented to various stakeholder audiences.

Internal communications: Getting out ahead of the internal communications necessary to promote a launch or licensing is key. Developing templates for communications to investors, shareholders and partners explaining the expectations and timelines goes a long way toward ensuring a smooth liftoff.

External/social media communications: Develop specialized press releases and pitches that meet the key needs of both parties whenever possible. These releases and pitches should be tailorable to the varying kinds of media outlets each company seeks to attract. Develop and gain approval for the key external messages, so that each company is “speaking the same language.” Identify and train the key spokespeople vis-à-vis those key messages to ensure the same key points emerge regardless of who may be talking. Consider videos and/or podcasts that may be uploaded to social media, and monitor discussion across both companies’ social channels.

The idea of coordinating communications between partners can be daunting. But with the right preparation and forethought, it can be an exciting time for a strategic communications program to cultivate trust with each company, and deliver results that meet the needs of all parties.

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Donna LaVoie is President and CEO of LaVoieHealthScience.