Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Pfizer's PR Chief: "How in the hell do we have such a bad reputation?"

Over the past 20 months, Pfizer's global PR chief, Ray Kerins re-organized the company's press relations office to "manage" journalists, according to this 3-minute Ad Age video. [Hat tip to PharmaGossip.]

"I blame myself and those of us in the industry for the bad reputation that the pharmaceutical industry has," said Kerins during a conference presentation.

Kerins finds it incredible that despite making products designed to save lives and cure diseases, the drug industry enjoys such low esteem among the public. "How in the hell do we have such a bad reputation?" was his way of expressing it. "It makes no sense."

Well, he doesn't answer that question directly -- at least not in this short video clip -- although he blames pharma PR people for not wining and dining journalists enough, which is traditionally what PR is all about.

"Our core strategy," Kerins says, is "engage and educate," which can be loosely translated to "free lunch and schmooze," the same strategy that has worked so well in marketing to physicians.

"In fact," Kerins said, "we are hosting a lunch with the communications team for Linda Johnson, who is one of the top health care folks at the Associated Press. She's outstanding, she's brilliant, we love her to death." Jeez, get a room already!

I don't know much about Linda Johnson and her general take on the pharmaceutical industry. I've read just a few of her articles about Pfizer -- eg, "Pfizer to buy Wyeth for $68B; cut 8,000 jobs" -- which seems fairly balanced. But she is no Ed Silverman, former reporter and blogger with the Newark Star Ledger.

In 2008 Pfizer brought in approximately 215 journalists. They even invited bloggers like me to come in. I didn't hear anything about a free lunch, so I blew them off (see "Chantix 'Roundtable' Apparently Not Round and Not a Table"). "The meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes, was largely uneventful, in so far as three Pfizer execs sat at a table in front of approximately 30 journalists and analysts," said Ed Silverman.

Kerins -- true to his commitment to engage journalists (and bloggers it seems) -- posted this followup to me in a comment: "Based on the poem that you posted last week [here], we know that you were anxious to attend our media roundtable today. We’re sorry that you couldn't make it. Would be happy to set up some time with you to speak with some of our medical and safety folks to address your questions."

My bad for not taking him up on that offer, which I hope I can take advantage of in the future when another PR fire needs to be put out.

I don't know too much about corporate communications and PR at pharmaceutical companies except from what I have learned from Marc Monseau and Michael Parks. Monseau works at Johnson & Johnson and writes a blog to help him educate journalists (see JNJ BTW). Michael Parks, used to work for Centocor and also wrote a blog, which is now defunct.

BTW, Parks will be my guest on today's Pharma Marketing Talk live streaming audio show and podcast. See "Life After CNTO411 Blog for Michael Parks: Pitch360."

But back to why pharma has such a bad reputation. It's not something that can easily be fixed by "engaging and educating" journalists.

Speaking as a consumer -- the end user of pharmaceutical products -- I say that pharma doesn't do enough to "engage and educate" me. More than that, I hate to see that some people cannot afford drugs and I hate it when pharma tries to keep drug prices high -- as, for example, when it prevented Medicare from being able to negotiate prices as part of the Part D program.

Pharma needs to give some free lunches to us consumers -- more discounts on co-pays, for example. Expand its Patient Assistance Programs to include unemployed people. That sort of thing.

In other words, do more to help Americans get through these harsh economic times and THEN wine and dine the journalists -- better yet, blog about it!


  1. Drug companies (to me) are a lot like the oil companies. Even though they are doing tons and tons of research, people and media focus on their profit. You profit in good times and bad times by having a necessity with a healthy margin.

    They also spend a ton on push DTC TV marketing. The constant "screaming" about the population's disease problems is really, really depressing. ED, depression, anxiety. Just because you have the money doesn't mean you need to burn it openly and ignoring my actual needs.

    I'm working with my first pharma client and I'm surprised by the regulations that keep pharma companies from connecting with their consumers (FDA regs). Pharma companies (health in general) is so open until it comes to drugs. Then everything is behind iron curtains. The FDA seriously needs to reconsider this. It is effecting the drug company's reputation the most.

    Stop beating me up with interruptive advertising (calling it awareness) and start engaging me when I need you - with online education and my doctor's CME.

  2. Anonymous12:13 PM

    He blames himself for the bad reputation of Pharma. Yeah right.

    Why does Pharma have such a bad reputation? Because the products they make aren't necessarily effective but they sure are expensive. People are starting to catch on that these needless drug ads make them feel sicker than they actually are. Or once they take the drug, they realize they have some other disease they need to go "ask [their] doctor" about.

    That's why the ads have to keep getting cleverer, or show up on social networks. They already use sex to sell some of these drugs, it's only a matter of time before every drug ad becomes sexualized.

  3. Anonymous5:52 AM

    The industry's problem is equal parts "image" and "business practices." Both are going to have to be addressed and the later probably has to precede the former. Sales & marketing models (with the ongoing set of fairly ugly revelations that appear in the press on a regular basis) have to change dramatically. It's hard to have a good image when many of the major firms in the business are or recently have been operating under Federal Corporate Compliance Agreements.

    The industry's salvation probably lies at least partly in the one thing folks are running away from as fast as possible--comparative effectiveness review. That process done well (with industry help on how to analyze data properly) could at one stroke reduce patient co-pays, thereby eliminating the out-of-pocket optics problem. It would also cut the need to spend 20%-30% of revenues on promotion by a significant amount as well, thereby ameliorating another big image issue. That might actually offer up the possibility of improving profitability while also improving the public perception of the industry.

    Finally, industry needs to be paying a good deal more attention to the bigger environmental & policy issues that can have such a large effect on business conditions. In part, industry got into this mess because it largely ignored things like multi-tier co-pay models (which simultaneously raised patients' out of pocket spending on pharmaceuticals and their ire at the industry) until the process was well advanced. This game is now about to get replayed in the specialty Rx arena and the fallout will be considerable.

    Industry can't simply invent its way out of these problems, as much as it might like to. However, by understanding its channel partners (such as employers, CMS, and health plans) and working with them more collaboratively, it can probably get to an equitable solution for all concerned. That would do more to enhance the image of the research-based firms than just about anything else.

  4. Drug companies have two issues, both already talked about above by other commenters; first their current campaigns are not great. Most consumers are not interested in hearing about Prep-H and ED while eating dinner in front of the TV.
    Secondly, because of the last 20 years of lobbying, the drug companies have become another boggie man of large, over-arching, big companies that frankly scares the hell out of people. Bottom line is that the drug companies have positioned themselves so that they have lost their consumers' trust. And that is a bad thing for any company.

    So, the drug companies needs to clean up their act and that can only be done by building back the trust. Our suggestion is that they start marketing to consumers, DTC, using social media. They need to build social network communities where members get educated, where members can ask questions to get quick response and accurate (no marketing fluff) answers. There is a whole cadre of actions that can be taken.

    Full disclosure - we sell a product that helps companies promote brand to social media (www.Social-smart.com).

    Whether a company would use us or anything else is beside the point, though. The important thing is that drug companies need to change the marketing campaigns.



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