Have we turned the page?

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While I didn't need another reason for chalking up 1966 as a vintage year, I quickly found one when I joined Medical Marketing & Media: Not only was 1966 the year in which England won the World Cup, but it also marked the launch of this publication.

It's hard to believe that Medicare had only just launched, President Bush wasn't old enough to drink and CommonHealth CEO Matt Giegerich was still in diapers.

Next month we will celebrate our 40th birthday with a special issue commemorating four decades in medical marketing, while keeping an eye on the road ahead.

It was fun to trawl through the archives of a title that, I'm glad to report, is older than I am. Aside from a few obviously dated articles on such topics as the operation of “computer machines” and the good habits of successful “detailmen,” I was amazed at the how many of the issues and concerns from 20, 30, 40 years ago are the same ones the industry is grappling with today.

Take reputation. In a 1981 roundtable discussion on consumers' perception of corporate image, Nora Ganim Barnes, a professor of marketing at Boston College, told participants from pharma: “It's very hard to hold people responsible for having a negative image of you when in fact you've never done anything to help them have anything else.”

We all know the industry has gotten better at communication. We all know there is a long way to go. And the challenges keep on coming. The latest literary exposé of pharma —The Whistleblower: Confessions of a Healthcare Hitman by former Pfizer exec
Peter Rost—is about to hit bookstores.

The crux of the book is a cat-and-mouse game of e-mail between Rost, then a Pharmacia VP for Genotropin, and his new superiors at Pfizer, immediately prior to and following Pfizer's 2003 takeover of Pharmacia. After Rost is kept on initially, Pfizer discovers he had filed a whistleblower suit in the past, and seeks to squeeze him out. Rost turns the tables, extending his employment through legal posturing and using his position with Pfizer to advocate for the reimportation of drugs.

Rost finds a chink in Pfizer's armor: its reputation. Among the “blunders” he details are: flouting Congress by seeking to discredit him just before he testified on reimportation; and misfiring, literally, on the timing of his termination (while he was serving as a grand jury witness).
While Rost is likely no angel, he takes his lumps, losing his staff, his cushy office and even his e-mail and cell phone for a short time. And when the $600,000-a-year salary goes, Rost considers COBRA, the federal health insurance program, but finds his unemployment insurance tinadequate.

It's a scathing account of the allegedly “insidious” practices of the industry that once paid his salary and of the US healthcare system. The media is sure to lap it up.

Past industry exposés have promised to destroy pharma's reputation, but in fact amounted to little long-lasting negative coverage. However, Rost's book may well offer a better test of how far the industry's communications skills have evolved. And when it comes to media relations, pharma's biggest company hasn't always offered reporters the warmest welcome.

Back to the 1981 roundtable. James Russo of SmithKline offered an insight that is, perhaps, relevant to this day: “Back [in the early 1970s] the industry regarded the press as a group that was on the offense and was patently unfair with us and unwilling to print our side. I think the industry's attitude toward the media has matured. [The media] may appear hostile because, in fact, hostile things are going on about this industry.”

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