It seems corporate reputation is countercyclical for pharmas, as well. The drug industry was the only sector to see appreciable gains in public perception from 2007 to 2008, according to Harris Interactive. The industry posted its highest rating in five years as financial services firms and automakers displaced pharmas in the dregs of public esteem alongside tobacco.

The good news is that the pharmaceutical sector is now less loathed than energy/utilities, airlines, insurance, automotive, tobacco and financial services. The bad news: with positive ratings up five percentage points to 31%, the drug industry isn’t exactly in clover.

Still, in a year when negative perceptions of corporate America jumped 17 points to 88%, it’s significant, said Dr. Robert Fronk, SVP, reputation strategy at Harris Interactive, who notes that the industry’s positive rankings have hovered in the mid-20s for years.

“I do believe that the industry is beginning to get some credit,” said Fronk, “both for changes in behavior, in how companies are thinking about reputation, as well as communications.”

For its Reputation Quotient study, Harris Interactive first asks a pool of respondents – 6,587 for this year’s study — what companies have the best and worst reputation in order to determine its list of the most visible companies. The data firm then asks a larger group, of 20,483 for 2008, to rate those firms. Among pharmas, this year’s 16 most visible firms included only Johnson & Johnson, a company better known for its consumer products than its drug and device businesses. That’s a good sign, said Fronk, since pharmas that have made the short list in years past have done so mainly through negative publicity.

Among sectors, financial services tied with tobacco, as a mere 11% of respondents gave it a positive rating. Positive perception of the automotive industry plunged 22 points to 16%.