YOUR BRAND MANAGER wants you to produce a teleconference for oncologists. You know oncologists don't like teleconferences. What do you do? “Often, brand managers know what they want and not what they need. And brand managers don't want to take ‘No’ for an answer,” says Suzanne Turner, who has 10 years' experience working at different medical communication companies managing projects for a variety of pharmaceutical firms. Most recently, she served as associate manager for medical education with Organon Inc., West Orange, N.J. (In February, Turner switched to academia, joining the Harvard School of Public Health, Center for Continuing Professional Education, Boston, as associate director, new programs and development.)

While many brand managers incorrectly view meeting planners as clerks — the people who book the flights, rooms, and food — Turner says planners have a critical role to play in the education development process. She speaks from an unusual vantage point. While Organon's planners were once treated as only the logistics people, when she came on board, the meeting planning department, under the direction of Turner's supervisor, was being transformed into something more — a program services group. The group's meeting professionals, or program managers, are responsible for “building the program from soup to nuts. Recruiting the faculty, coordinating the meeting materials, establishing the venue, booking the hotel, recruiting the participants — you name it,” says Turner. Organon's approach is uncommon in the pharmaceutical world, acknowledges Turner. But no matter how your meeting department is positioned or what your official responsibilities are, she believes that meeting planners need to move beyond their role as logistics people. “The brand manager's job covers many areas, including sales, marketing, and advertising. Education is just a slice of the pie.” If meeting planners are education experts, they can become strategic partners to the brand management teams.

First, Educate Yourself

First, meeting planners need to educate themselves about all aspects of programming. For instance, if you're working on a program for oncologists, visit the Web sites of oncology societies and learn everything you can about oncology. “It isn't necessary to be a medical expert, but you do need to understand the needs of the audience,” she says. The Internet is perfect for learning about CME and all the various medical societies and specialties, she adds.

You also need to know about CME guidelines and the new Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America's (PhRMA) ethical code so you can protect brand managers from putting the company in an embarrassing or inappropriate position — because they will be focused squarely on their objectives. This is the program manager/meeting planner's most important role. “Inevitably,” says Turner, “there will come a time when a brand manager will unknowingly ask a meeting professional to include a component in the program that violates the PhRMA code, such as a dinner or some form of entertainment, because they are unaware of the extent of the regulations or the company's interpretation. It is the meeting professional's responsibility to say, “I understand your reasoning, but that might not be a good idea — here's why.”

“It takes time to prove that you can be a team player, making decisions with the brand's best interests in mind,” says Turner, “but once you do, you can bring all your knowledge to the table and the brand team will be more apt to take your advice, and that will make your life easier.”

Saying ‘No’ Isn't Easy

But just how do you say no to people up the ranks? Let's say your brand manager wants to do a teleconference, but you know from past experience it won't work. Rather than saying “No,” take the tactful route. “Say, ‘Well, let's take a look and see if that will be the most effective way,’” says Turner. “It often depends on your audience. In my experience, oncologists, for instance, don't like teleconferences.” Other specialists may not be interested either.

“Clinicians want to get together to network and talk with their peers. For example, psychiatrists work one on one with patients all day and don't get the opportunity to speak with peers and share experiences.” However, other doctors, like family physicians, especially those in rural areas, may welcome a teleconference because they may not be able to get to a live event or afford the time away from the office. As a meeting professional, if you've educated yourself, you can build a persuasive case to alter the design of the program.

Predict the Pitfalls

Effective education programs take time to produce. However, “A brand manager might want 50 physicians in 50 seats in three weeks. I can do it,” says Turner. “But what will the ROI be? I can get 50 participants, but they may not be the right people. They won't be the clinicians who have the potential to write a large number of prescriptions and build the brand.”

As a strategic partner, it is up to the meeting professional to point out these possible shortfalls. “It's managing up to the brand managers,” says Turner. “It's your responsibility to convince them of what they need, not just give them what they want.”

Nevertheless, there are times when you might have to say, ‘I'll do what you want me to do, but you might not be happy with the result.’” In those cases, put your feedback in writing. Never do anything that costs money without getting it in writing, she says. “Sometimes it takes failure to show them you were right,” Turner observes. “You'll never have to tell them ‘I told you so.’”

Summarizing her approach, Turner concludes: “It's important that meeting professionals have the courage and knowledge to say no, so they can organize a successful and cost-effective program.”

Suzanne Turner on the PhRMA Code

The Educator's Perspective “For me, the advent of the PhRMA code is fabulous because the program becomes about the clinical merits of the product as opposed to ‘I'm going to write Brand X because Brand X flew my wife and kids to Disney World for the weekend where I had an hour of education and then we got to go on all the rides.’ That always bothered me.”

The Physician's Perspective “Some doctors are also guilty of demanding [perks]. The American Medical Association has had its Ethical Opinion on Gifts to Physicians for years, but there's no enforcement mechanism. A lot of doctors say ‘That applies to everyone but me.’”

The Corporate Perspective “Companies like Organon, which is very conservative, have a strict interpretation of the PhRMA Code. [However], it's a challenge to reconcile this with [the doctors' attitudes], especially when some companies aren't following the PhRMA code. (Some firms are not members of PhRMA, or they have a very loose interpretation of the code.) And, there's no enforcement mechanism. There's a lot of gray area. As a result, brand managers may feel they're not able to compete — especially if one of their key competitors is not following the code.”