40 years of Public Relations

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How pharma became image-conscious
Corporate reputation can be a fickle thing—particularly in pharma. Consider this advice from MM&M, January 1993:

"Merck! When 5,317 physicians representing all specialties were asked to name the three pharmaceutical companies that they held in the 'highest regard,' irrespective of products, Merck was mentioned most often. But before you rush out to take out a second or third mortgage to buy more Merck stock, be advised that it wasn't a clean sweep." Also feeling the love: Lilly, BMS and Johnson & Johnson.

As the power of drugs to save and enhance lives has grown, so has animosity toward their makers. In June 1984, as a sleepy business stood on the cusp of explosive growth, MM&M noted, “The industry as a whole, and most individual companies, have little public support or empathy to fall back on when things go wrong. The pharmaceutical industry has traditionally been a ‘low visibility' industry, oriented toward the physician as consumer and end-user, building its image of responsibility and ethical behavior with the doctor and not the true end-user patient.”

Of course, today's industry is oriented as much toward the end-user as it is toward the physician. And it has begun addressing reputation through such programs like the Value of Medicine Initiative.

Angry patients fight for affordable HIV treatments
The tug-of-war between AIDS activists and pharma firms in the late '80s and early '90s was a wrenching experience, but one that ultimately produced fruitful collaborations and new models of patient communications.

The members of groups like ACT-UP and Gay Men's Health Crisis, desperate for new treatments, were outraged at the cost of those first drugs and the slow pace of drug development. Burroughs Wellcome, BMS and Roche weren't used to being besieged by angry patients. “This was really the turning point when DTP communications came into being,” says Paul Oestreicher, health care lead at Zeno Group who was then head of communications at Hoffman-LaRoche.

The activists won their first battle in 1989, when Burroughs Wellcome announced a 20% price cut on AZT, then the only treatment for HIV. “Even after Burroughs Wellcome's concession, the 12-pill-a-day AZT regimen could cost patients $6,400 a year. Activists made their anger known by trashing booths at medical conventions and protesting outside company headquarters.

“They pushed companies into changing the entire tone of their outreach,” says Oestreicher.
Gradually, drug makers established relationships with leaders in the HIV/AIDS community as the two sides came together to improve clinical trials. By August 1991, relations were warming enough for ACT-UP founder Larry Kramer to write BMS chief Richard Gelb a congratulatory letter on the imminent approval of Videx (DDI). Kramer wrote, “Would that other drug companies would be as trusting, or as attentive, to our advice!”

AIDS groups fought for the reauthorization of the Orphan Drug Act. They helped enable a streamlined and sped-up review process through the passage of the Prescription Drug User Fee Act in 1992. “It wasn't until the patient community got involved that substantial progress was made,” said Oestreicher.

Honesty touted as best policy in PR
Getting it from both sides? Communicators have long been caught in the middle of the tug-of-war between two distinct constituencies—the press and the boss.

In a November 1972 article titled, “The selection, care and feeding of public relations counsel,” MM&M advised: “Management has to realize that professional public relations counsel serves two masters in fulfilling the public need to know—media and management. Honesty has and will continue to be the best policy. Honesty builds confidence between the company and the media.”

1962: Outrage over Thalidomide deformities in Europe prompts congressional hearings culminating in the passage of Kefauver-Harris Amendments in October.

1982: Poisoned Tylenol claims first victims in suburban Chicago, Sept. 29. Johnson & Johnson's forthright handling of the scare became a textbook case in good crisis communications and burnished the brand's trustworthiness.

1987: Merck launches the Mectizan Donation Program in October in an effort to eradicate the parasite that causes river blindness and garners tremendous goodwill and good press in the process.

2004: Merck withdraws Vioxx on Sept. 30 providing a touchpoint for public ire over drug prices and dragging industry reputation down into the doldrums, alongside oil and tobacco companies: to say nothing of the reputation of Merck, America's most admired company through much of the '80s and '90s. Merck launches first-ever corporate ad campaign shortly thereafter.

2005: GSK sponsors “Value of Medicine Awareness Month” in Missouri, a pilot program for its effort to boost industry reputation. The company later trains sales reps to speak to community groups, family and friends about the good that the industry does.

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