Monday, April 09, 2007

The Zubillaga Affair: Effect on the Prospects for Pharma Blogging

The Pharma Blogosphere is all a twitter about an AstraZeneca internal Oncology newsletter that published a controversial analogy made by Mike Zubillaga, AZ's Mid-Atlantic regional sales director/oncology.

What Mike said was:
"Call Execution - Not making the calls you are supposed to make does not drive your business. I see it like this: there is a big bucket of money sitting in every office. Every time you go in, you reach your hand in the bucket and grab a handful. The more times you are in, the more money goes in your pocket. Every time you make a call, you are looking to make more money."
The story was first seen on the AZ CafePharma Discussion Board and then Peter Rost over at Question Authority got hold of the "smoking gun" and published a scanned image of the relevant newsletter page.
NOTE: Did Michael Moore -- infamous producer/director of the long-anticipated "Sicko" documentary -- try to get hold of the evidence as well? Someone on CafePharma made this post: "Wow, that would be a great opening narrative to my upcoming movie 'Sicko', due out in September. PLEASE someone send it to me. Michael Moore"
AstraZeneca terminated Mr. Zubillaga on Good Friday and so far he has not risen from his corporate grave to defend himself. AZ had this to say:
"AstraZeneca strongly repudiates the negative comments made in this newsletter," the statement said. "This newsletter was produced outside of AstraZeneca's required approval and review processes."
Much is being written about the stupidity of expressing what's obvious in pharma sales. Mr. Zubillaga could have been more circumspect about it, as pointed out by an anonymous comment left on CafePharma:
"Sure he was trying to motivate his sales force but the guy is 50 years old and has worked in this industry how long? I mean, how stupid do you have to be to make a comment like that and then allow it to be printed in a newsletter? This industry is under intense scrutiny right now both by the government and the media. Any newbie, 22 year old PSS even knows that.

"This guy obviously had lost touch and thought he was so bad, he could say whatever he wanted. I can't think of a more tacky and embarassing example to use. We're not retarded. We know what are jobs are. However, in an area like oncology, his choice of words and actions are particularly unsavory and embarassing."
AZ also could have been more intelligent because nobody believes that such a newsletter could have been written and distributed without internal review and approval. It reminds me of Takeda's "not done here" defense regarding a TV ad that was cited as violative by the FDA (see "Call for a Rozerem Prescription Boycott!").

Pharma Not Ready for Blogging
This whole episode shows that the pharmaceutical industry is NOT ready for blogging, at least not the kind of blogging that I have often recommended, which is employee-written blogs. Several pharmaceutical companies like J&J are thought to be poised to launch such blogs -- at least internally for now. I see them reconsidering the wisdom of this idea, considering the public opinion black eye that AZ and the industry are getting from The Zubillaga Affair.

If a major pharmaceutical company cannot even oversee what employees say in an edited, limited distribution, print newsletter, how can you expect any pharmaceutical company to manage an employee blog?

I never advocated an interactive, unmoderated, free-for-all blog that any employee could contribute comments to. That would be suicide. What I envisioned was an employee blog that was more like an electronic newsletter, where employees submitted true success or motivational personal "stories" and where an editor would select which stories to publish in the blog. Comments from other employees would be allowed and encouraged -- even anonymous comments. But it would be up to the editor which comments to post.

This, I believe, is the closest that pharmaceutical companies can ever come to user-generated content. At least it would be written in the employees' own words and not crafted by the corporate communications or HR people.

But, now that I have seen how inept pharmaceutical companies can be about oversight of internal documents, I have to withdraw my suggestion for employee blogs.

I must say, however, that I never thought marketers and sales personnel made good spokespeople (see "GSK Strikes Back with a Grassroots Campaign" and "Sales Reps Make Poor Spokespeople"). The Zubillaga Affair confirms my opinion. There may still be hope for employee blogs if the following minimal criteria were met.

Rules for Pharma Employee Blogging
The following personnel should NOT be allowed to contribute to employee blogs:
  • Marketing, sales, legal, or corporate communications personnel
  • Managers or higher
The following personnel should be ENCOURAGED to contribute to employee blogs:
  • Rank and file employees including secretaries, assistants, etc.
  • Research and development personnel, including clinicians, lab people, etc.


  1. Anonymous3:20 PM

    This is a test comment...

  2. Anonymous3:30 PM

    John, like you, I have also been eager to see brand blogging but now have second thoughts. However, my inspiration is the recent case of Kathy Sierra, an IT blogger who got blasted with flame wars of the worst sort. We who take part in online discussions have, to one degree or another, gotten much too blase about crude and threatening verbal behavior over the years. This has led no less a light than Tim O'Reilly to propose a Blogger's Code of Conduct ( that leads off with "Take responsibility not just for your own words, but for the comments you allow on your blog." It also includes, "Consider eliminating anonymous comments." Both are a sharp departure from current online "culture," and yet O'Reilly makes a good case, and I'm open to it.

  3. Anonymous3:34 PM

    This sounds to me like the proverbial throwing out of the baby with the bath water.

    Using blogs to express your opinions is only one medium to allow one to make a fool of him/herself. And, in this case, Mr. Zubillaga used a printed newsletter to do so.

    Actually, I am pretty appalled at the way AZ has handled this whole thing, including the firing. A good look at AZ's own Corporate Responsibility policies and procedures would indicate that a. they violated their own processes and b. do not have sufficient guidelines/rules about internal communications. If you are interested, you can read my review of these here:

    As for blogging by pharma people, I say we need to encourage it. But, we also need to show what is and what is not acceptable.


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