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In medical technology companies, standing between company leaders and the chaos of a demanding communications environment are a company's corporate communications staffkey personnel for devising a company's communications strategies and the first line of defense in protecting a company and its reputation.
For this issue's roundtable discussion, MX called upon a panel of experts to provide their views about recent developments affecting corporate communications for medical technology companies (see sidebar).
MX: What have been the traditional roles and responsibilities of corporate communications in medical device companies?
Julie Tracy: In medtech companies, the traditional organizational chart usually listed functional areas that included marketing, sales, research and development, and regulatory affairs. In many companiesparticularly in smaller medtech companiescorporate communications was placed under marketing.
But over the past three to five years, the communication chief's role at companies has expanded dramatically. The role of that function's leader and the function in general are both growing in complexity, in scope, and in perceived importance within the senior management team of the company, and they are likely to continue doing so.
William C. Kolter: The environment and external factors are the things that are most likely to keep those of us in the medical device industry awake at night. We have experienced a convergence of those forces, and there's more to come. We haven't seen anything yet.
J. Patrick Anderson: At Stryker, defining, managing, and maintaining the company brand has also been a big part of the responsibilities of communications. In addition, we play a significant role in internal as well as external communications efforts. One other area that has come into prominence is corporate social responsibility.
Within your companies you each have vice president titles, which might not have been the case a decade ago. Does that indicate that companies recognize the need for executives with more experience and, as you suggest, more subtle thought processes?
Tracy: I think so, absolutely. However companies define the position, its roles have become more complex. Compared with what the communications function entailed years ago, today's communications staff have had to step up their game considerably. They really need to have a high quality knowledge base about their company, and be able to communicate all of that information very quickly. The kind of person that's going to do well in this role also has to have a correspondingly broad set of skills.
Bill, how was the need for your new position identified? Was the position conceived as part of the company's private-equity buyout in September 2007?
Kolter: I don't know the extent to which our equity partners participated, but I think the position was created as a mandate from our new president and CEO, Jeffrey R. Binder.
Jeff's vision created my position. But the need to address the new environment that we've been discussing was broadly apparent.
In my mind, it is advantageous for a person in this position to have a VP position. The corporate communications chief has to have a lot of credibility internally. But when speaking to the company's stakeholders, the position also needs to have some seniority in order to give it credibility externally.
Tracy: I agree with that. That is an excellent comment.
In the pastand maybe even today on some smaller scalecompanies have had a tendency to fold communications into a marketing function or place it under the supervision of another function, so that the chief communications person reports to a VP.
Now, I think, progressive companies are separating the function out. They are realizing that communications can be a unifier, because the messages we have to communicate reach across all of the company's functions.
Change and Challenge
A number of changes in the medtech environment are having important effects on corporate communications, including Sarbanes-Oxley requirements and new fraud- and abuse-related restrictions on company communications. How have those requirements brought about changes in your position and its responsibilities?
Anderson: Communications is more highly scrutinized than ever before, but the core principles guiding our approach haven't changed how and how often we communicate with our key audiences. Perhaps the biggest impact in the communications arena can be seen in the production of annual reports and proxy statements, as they have become larger and much more prescriptive in nature.
Tracy: These new requirements have certainly increased the complexity of the information and the various stakeholder groups that must be considered when putting together messaging. Today, it's not enough to just say, for example, 'here is a message that we want to get across, and it's going to be directed toward our physician customers.'
Instead, communications staff have to be thinking about a whole range of considerations: how the message will be seen by customers, whether it is within regulatory guidelines, how it might affect the company's reputation. And they also have to think about the message in terms of a variety of stakeholder groupsnot just how it plays with physician customers. Now, message targets have to be considered in a much broader context, because every message will inevitably reach every audience, including regulatory bodies, financial regulators, investorsand everyone else.
When trying to get out their own messages, companies often find that they are competing with a wide variety of other informationand sometimes misinformationabout them. How can companies deal with such time-consuming distractions and stay on message?
Tracy: Dealing with the unintended consequences of what we say sometimes becomes a very large part of our job. It's important for communications professionals to think about what those unintended consequences might be before their message gets into circulation.
Anderson: The media and regulatory environments have changed dramatically in the last decade. The news cycle is continuous and, because of the Internet, all stories are global and have the potential to spread at lightning speed. As a result, communicating positive news, and managing any inaccurate information, is certainly more complex.
We strive to make our communications material, newsworthy, and relevant to our target audiences. We believe this helps improve both pick-up and accurate reporting, regardless of how much 'noise' is out there.
Does the fact that the medical device industry is a globalized industry enter into your thinking quite a bit?
Anderson: Absolutely! Stryker's international business makes up approximately one-third of our total sales. It is essential for us to consider our international operations whenever we plan and execute our communications activities. For example, when we send out employee communications, we translate them into 22 languages.
Pitfalls of Today's Medtech Environment
In your view, what are the most serious problems that can trip up medtech companies?
Anderson: We need to remember that all of the potential stakeholders can, and almost always do, see multiple pieces of information about the company. As a result, we need to make sure it is accurate. Communications professionals simply can't be experts in every area. We must seek out the experts, capture what they have to say, and guide their statements through a review process before sharing them broadly.
Tracy: The most serious problem is loss of trustperiod. Once a company incurs damage to its reputation, it takes a long time to gain it back.
Kolter: Not communicating early and not communicating often is also a serious problem.
Do you conduct media training for your executive team in order to help prevent misstatements and false statements? What executives would you involve?
Anderson: We have a rigorous media training program that is designed to help our key spokespeople communicate effectively with all our stakeholders. We don't necessarily focus our trainings on what our spokespeople can and can't say, but rather on how they can communicate more effectively and articulately. Media training sessions also provide us the opportunity to ensure our key messages are well defined and understood by each spokesperson.
Tracy: We haven't done any formal media training since I've been at ev3. However, we have a relatively new CEOhe's been with the company six monthsand he received media training in other companies.
Our company's designated spokespersons are the CEO, the CFO, and myself. So if a reporter asks to interview one of our employees, they are directed to speak with me first. That's another way that we can control our messaging, by limiting the group of people who are authorized to speak on behalf of the company.
Kolter: That's how we do it too. We make sure that those requests come through my office. We have limited touch points with the media, and that's how we control them.
What about occurrences such as adverse events and recalls? Those issues can come up rapidly, and companies might not have the time they'd like to prepare for questions that could arise.
Kolter: Obviously you can't prepare for the things that you can't prepare for. But those are the times when we huddle with the management team and decide what kind of information needs to be put out for the stakeholders, and what the company's message should be.
In any case, we don't have rogue individuals going off and making statements to the media. Everyone is cognizant of the importance of coordinated communications and makes sure we get the right people involved.
Tracy: When something like this hits, it's important that the company spokesperson doesn't talk to a reporter without taking the time to gather his or her thoughts. The right people in the companythe CEO, CFO, legal, or whomeverneed to be appropriately briefed. And only then should the company frame and express its message.
Do you think industry associations are taking an adequate leadership role in developing communications with the media and other industry stakeholders, such as physician groups, regulatory agencies, and politicians?
Tracy: I think they are. The two primary organizations for medical devices are AdvaMed and the Medical Device Manufacturers Association. Each of those associations is engaged in those activities.
AdvaMed took the lead on developing an industry code of ethics, for instance. Both groups have folks in Washington, DC, who work at the government level there.
Anderson: AdvaMed developed a campaign to maintain and strengthen the positive perception of medical technology with key decision makers in Washington, DC, in 2005 and has enhanced it every year since then. The campaign, known as the value of technology campaign, has been very effective in reaching its intended audience and accomplishing its goals.
How can companies approach and get to know their local medtech reporters? What are the benefits of doing sofor companies or for overall industry positioning?
Anderson: This takes time but is worth the effort. It is best done when you aren't in the middle of a crisis or trying to meet their deadlines.
Tracy: You can't just call a reporter and say, 'Hey, I want you to do a story on our company.' Reporters are busy people, and you've got to have a good reason to call them.
But just generally, communications officers should know who the key industry and trade reporters areparticularly those where the company has facilitiesand they should make sure that those reporters have their contact information.
Kolter: That's something that I think is a good thing to do.
Another issue is that we in northern Indiana aren't routinely covered by any major metropolitan media. So as far as local reporters are concerned, there are maybe only one or two to be contacted.
What do you think the future challenges will be for communicating industry interests to all of the various industry stakeholders?
Tracy: In this radically more transparent world, our organizations can no longer be different things to different constituencies. We have to speak with a single voice across the entire spectrum of stakeholders. And we must recognize that the external forces that affect our messaging are only going to increase in the future. It's never going to get easier.
Kolter: I would emphasize that the external forces affecting company communications are in fact going to intensify. The medical device industry is going to be under a lot of scrutiny, for a variety of reasons, as policymakers look at healthcare and ways that they can reform it. It's going to be incumbent upon corporate communications folks to rally the forces, collaborate, and continue to tell the very positive story of the value that medical technology companies deliver to all stakeholders.