January 15, 2009
Divided by a common speech
Regardless of their political persuasion, most people would have to agree that President Obama's Inauguration speech was penned with precision and delivered with no less aplomb.
What struck me is how many of his most salient remarks could apply equally to the current plight of the pharma industry. In fact they would comprise a rousing rally cry.
For example, few would deny that pharma's own “winter of hardship” could be attributed, in part, to “a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some” and “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”
And how should we go about repairing the situation? To borrow the words of the President, we must “pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off.” And we must “spend wisely, reform bad habits and do our business in the light of day,” for “what is required of us now is a new era of responsibility.”
What also struck me, however, is that I'd heard many of these remarks (albeit in different words) just a few days earlier in a speech delivered, not by Uncle Sam's commander-in-chief, but by Pfizer's communicator-in-chief.
Ray Kerins, vice president, worldwide communications, at the pharma giant was delivering the keynote at the Real-Time Communications conference and roundtables in New York on Jan.14.
And in a refreshingly frank and forthright session, Kerins focused on the need for the industry to change its ways and detailed a renewed push within Pfizer to better understand and engage all stakeholders.
“If we're not willing to engage, we only have ourselves to blame,” said Kerins. “We develop life-saving medications, so how in the hell do we have such a bad reputation? It's mind-blowing.” Or, as the President said, we should “choose our better history” and to “carry forward that precious gift.” (The gift, when applied to pharma, being the ability to save lives, of course.)
Pfizer's first port of call was to start rebuilding trust with journalists. Kerins noted that when the story of the initial 800 layoffs broke on Jan. 13, Pfizer was dealing with local media who were not expecting a response from Kerins' team. “The idea that we have reporters out there who are thinking ‘the corporation is not going to call us back' is a problem,” he lamented.
But you could hardly blame the journalists for thinking that way. After all, Kerins admitted that before he came on board, there was an unwritten rule that Pfizer's media relations staff should throw out the first message they got. “I said, ‘You what?' How do we even know what the story is if we don't talk to them? I don't ever want to see ‘no comment' from Pfizer,” he said.
So Kerins, determined to unbreak pharma's reputation, began inviting the press to meet his team at “fortress” Pfizer. More than 100 journalists paid a visit in 2008.
In the words of the President: “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist…For the world has changed and we must change with it.”
But, warned Kerins: “We have to understand the environment better to know what we're changing to. Unless we're listening, we don't know what we're looking to change.”
Of course, only time will tell if Pfizer is successful in following through on the promises. But saying the right things is better than saying nothing at all, and can quickly build you quite a following, to which at least one President can attest.