What the Pharmaceutical Industry Must Do to Regain Trust

Pharma has been taking it on the chin for some time now.  It’s been targeted by activists, bloggers, politicians and reformers. Next to Wall Street, it’s one of today’s least trusted industries.

 
But until last week, much of the industry’s response had the flavor of, “if people only knew the whole story,” or “they just don’t appreciate the good we do.”

Fair enough, perhaps.  But no longer good enough.

Last week, the industry drew negative cover-page articles in two iconic, industry-friendly major publications.

Et tu, Advertising Age? From the trade magazine of an industry that benefits enormously from Pharma comes this tabloid-like headline:

Vytorin Ad Shame Taints Entire Marketing Industry

 

Cholesterol Drug’s Ad Campaign Turns Into PR Nightmare, Fanning Flames of Public Mistrust of DTC.

Reports that Merck & Co. and Schering-Plough Corp. kept under wraps for more than a year findings that Vytorin does not deliver results it spent more than $100 million advertising to consumers is much more than a PR disaster for the drug’s co-marketers. Coming on the heels of a New York Times story that Pfizer’s $2 billion drug Lyrica treats a condition, fibromyalgia, that a lot of doctors don’t think exists, the Vytorin news is fanning the flames of public mistrust for the $5 billion direct-to-consumer drug industry — and the ad business in general.

"The pharmas are in big trouble in terms of credibility," said brand expert Rob Frankel, who runs his own consultancy at RobFrankel.com. "They’re just above Congress and used-car salesmen."

Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

But the topper has to be making the cover story on BusinessWeekDo Cholesterol Drugs Do Any Good?

 

Never mind the typically well-researched and well-written critique of the industry; never mind the bad press Merck and Schering-Plough got for the Vytorin data, coming on the heels of the Vioxx lawsuits; never mind the bevy of critical testimonials the article digs up.

The plain fact is, once Ad Age and BusinessWeek put you on their covers—in nakedly negative terms—it’s time for some basic re-examination.  Low trust is not a surprise to the industry—but this is a wake-up call about the failure of the industry’s response to date.

One of the major pharmaceutical firms (because it’s not likely to be PhRMA, the industry’s trade association) needs to find a voice and take a leadership role—to speak what has become obvious to the world outside Pharma, as represented by leading business publications.

The message is this: the only way to resolve the industry’s trust issues is to become trustworthy—worthy of trust.

• Trust will not be regained by “educating” the public.

• Trust will not be regained by “getting the message out.”

• Trust will not be regained by improving your PR; your PR will be improved by regaining your trust.

• Trust will not be regained by framing it as a problem of image, marketing, or perception.

• Trust will not be regained by coordinating, refining or sharpening talking points; the problem is not getting the message out—it’s listening to the market to hear the message coming in.

The good news is, there are a great number of very well-intentioned, smart people in this industry, who are deeply pained at having been demonized the way they have been.  Some are courageously beginning to face up to it.

It won’t be easy for them. Twenty years of success, blockbuster drugs, and an overdose of marketing culture erects barriers to even their good intent.

Further, any gain in trustworthiness must be broad-based.

It won’t be enough just to help sales forces become listeners, rather than shills—though that will help. It isn’t enough to wean physicians from the “consulting” and “education” fees they reap—though that will help. It isn’t enough to deal with the appearance of conflict in researchers and journals’ affiliations with pharma funding—though that will help. It isn’t enough to seek business models beyond patent-stretching, features-tweaking and disease creation—though that will surely help. 

It is an industry whose beliefs and practices have become encrusted, making its untrustworthiness opaque even to those who most sincerely would reform it.

So, what will it take?

• Courage, for one. Which does exist; there are some fine people in pharma.

• Brains, for aother. Again, pharma is blessed. The trick is to turn those brains loose; to use the courage to think boldly, examine anew.

• Transparency is required too, though even that is hampered by layers of regulation brought upon itself by the industry’s own past practices.

• But above all, the industry needs a sense of urgency.  Not just business urgency, but a personal willingness to face some  shame, or disgust, or revulsion; something that comes from the gut and says, “you know, we are better than this; we can do better than this; and I for one have had it.”

I can’t think of any industry where the trust gap between what is and what could be is larger, and where the social cost of that gap is greater. It is in society’s best interest to have a trusted pharmaceutical industry. At its best, the pharmaceutical industry saves hundreds of thousands of lives, and adds quality of life to millions.   We are paying gazillions in cost, red tape, suspicion, and lost or devalued lives because of its absence.

We should all be rooting for this industry to heal itself.

The first step is admitting you’ve got a problem.

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