A few years ago, an American pharmaceutical company approached Baird’s CMC with a problem. The company had begun spending US$ 5 million each year on a massive corporate PR programme in their African markets because they were convinced that civil society groups and leaders saw them as much worse than their competitors. “They were afraid that the negative perception of the company in civil society would adversely impact government policy towards them,” explains Mark Chataway, co-chairman of Baird’s CMC.
Thus, Baird’s CMC was given the following tasks: to determine the extent of negative opinion prevalent among civil society groups; to come up with ideas on how to improve the PR campaign; and to work with specially flown in European and American experts to explain and persuade people about the positive character of the pharmaceutical company.
Baird’s CMC conducted in-depth research into the matter. The firm identified a number of relevant African civil society opinion leaders (activists, journalists, social workers) and groups (NGOs, campaign groups). These people were then approached and asked a number of indirect questions to arrive at the heart of the issue. And that’s how the truth of the matter emerged: the pharmaceutical client was viewed no better or worse than their competitors in the market. In fact, the entire group of pharma companies was far down on the list of people’s priorities. In other words, there wasn’t a real problem at all!
“We conveyed this to the client, explaining that their fears were unfounded. Additionally, we also made clear to them that there was an existing opportunity for them to differentiate themselves positively and surge past their competitors by following a plan based on our research,” says Mark. What else did the findings indicate? African civil society leaders paid the most attention to what their African peers and colleagues had to say, and accorded a reasonable degree of importance to what their Asian counterparts’ opinions thought. However, as it turned out, African civil society groups just didn’t think Americans and Europeans had anything terribly relevant to say about things in the African context.
“We went back to our client and recommended that, instead of pumping thousands of dollars into flying down outside experts to speak to an unreceptive audience, it would be far more effective to fund a series of regional programmes. After all, people assigned greater credibility to local networks of influence,” says James Snodgrass, associate at Baird’s CMC.
The client’s game plan was altered accordingly – and it paid off. Liaising with local leaders to run the programme yielded positive results and people’s perceptions of the pharmaceutical client changed for the better. “Many times, our work is about getting past the assumptions that clients have and finding out how things really stand,” explains James. “It is necessary for us to begin with the basics – thorough market research – to establish the extent and precise nature of the problem. Sometimes, like in this case, there isn’t a problem at all! In that case, we determine if there is, instead, an opportunity that can be seized.”