How the Pharmaceutical Industry Can Increase Trust

“You can’t talk your way out of what you behaved your way into,” says Stephen Covey.

But not everyone believes Covey.

NY Times, May 22, 2007.

“Columbia University dismissed its financial aid director yesterday after the release of documents showing he promoted a student loan company in which he had a stake, sending letters to parents and alumni on three occasions praising the lender.”

NY Times, March 21, 2007.

…the year [Dr. Allan Collins]was chosen as president-elect of the National Kidney Foundation, the pharmaceutical company Amgen, which makes the most expensive drugs used in the treatment of kidney disease, underwrote more than $1.9 million worth of research and education programs led by Dr. Collins…In 2005, Amgen paid Dr. Collins at least $25,800, mostly in consulting and speaking fees…

…Dr. Donald Hunninghake served on a government-sponsored advisory panel that wrote guidelines for when people should get cholesterol-lowering pills… eight of [the panel’s] nine members had financial ties to drug makers.

A 2002 survey found that more than 80 percent of the doctors on panels that write clinical practice guidelines had financial ties to drug makers.

Doctors said that lectures were highly educational, and that drug makers hired them for their medical expertise and speaking skills. But former drug company sales representatives said they hired doctors as speakers mostly in hope of influencing that doctor’s prescribing habits.

I don’t wish to engage in pharma-bashing. But Covey’s point needs heeding.

Columbia’s response to conflict was to say that the director, a 1985 graduate of the university, had “abused a position of trust and violated the university policy on conflicts of interest.”

So they fired him.

Covey, presumably, would approve.

Not so in pharma. In recent decades, the business of making and selling drugs has become much less about making and much more about selling. Perhaps that’s why the industry tends to see its trust problem as a marketing or PR issue—’if only the public knew the full truth, they’d trust us.’

Typical is this headline, from an April post by Ipsos research, :

Pharmaceutical Companies Need To Raise Awareness Of Their Social Investments To Improve Industry’s Image

Or this, promoting an interactive web seminar:

How can you safely navigate this politically-charged environment—and keep your business and brands strong? What can you do to restore public trust—even while facing negative campaign rhetoric? Find out at a New WebSeminar—Surviving the Election Wars: Strategies to Build Trust and Defend Brands.

Just to be clear who they view as being in charge of trust and brands:

If you are involved in advertising, marketing, market research, corporate communications, product and brand management, senior management, public affairs, or public relations…This is a program you can’t afford to miss!

PhRMA, the industry association, is a big proponent of the trust-is-a-communications-issue viewpoint. In an article appropriately titled "New PhRMA Leaders Discuss Future of the Industry, Need for More Public Education, " PhRMA’s CEO, ex-congressman Billy Tauzin, says, "“For PhRMA to continue to advocate well for our members, we must begin to correct the misconceptions and the outright fraudulent views that have been created about our work and our products.”

So, how’s it working? Here’s one survey:

43% of US adults believe that pharmaceutical companies fund groups like the American Heart Association and the National Kidney Foundation in order to get more people to buy their products or medicines, whereas only 21% believe it is to demonstrate that the companies care about a health issue supported by the group.

Truth: the pharmaceutical industry is loaded with good, smart, dedicated, well-meaning people. It has saved millions of lives, and improved millions more. It has the potential to do unimagineable good. We need a trusted pharmaceutical industry. But it’s the industry that must do the heavy lifting, not the consumer. The only real way to be trusted is—to be trustworthy.

A friend who does PR for pharma tells me it is difficult to give away drug coverage to lower income people—for free—because people are suspicious.

Covey’s right. You can’t talk your way out of a problem you behaved your way into—ask Imus. You can’t market your way out of structural conflicts of interest—ask Arthur Andersen. You don’t become trustworthy—worthy of trust—via marketing or advertising or PR agencies. That’s throwing water on a grease fire.

Pharma needs a fundamental recontracting with two critical constituencies—patients and physicians. It’s a business thirsting for trust—but trust based on values and behaviors. Not on spin, ads, press releases, awareness improvement and “education.”

We should all be rooting for pharma to make that shift.

0 replies
  1. Lark
    Lark says:

    Mr. Green,

    With all due respects… this industry is corrupt through-and-through… and it’s beyond salvation or redemption.

    It just can’t be sugar-coated any longer.

    I know they have all kinds of money to throw around… but in my view, no amount of lye soap and water could begin to wash away the stench.

    Association with these predators – whether implied or direct – would be unforgivable.

    I’m not so misguided or ill-informed about this issue – in fact, I’m so sure of my arguments I’d welcome an open debate with any one of these industry hot shots…

    … So long as its full transcript and/or recording would be guaranteed to see the full light of day in the mainstream news media.

    Something I doubt  seriously would ever be allowed to happen.

    Finally, and sadly, I dearly wish I could be more hopeful, but the problems run too deep.


    It’s because they’re systemic,  and also include the wanton corruption and unethical shenanigans of their corporate bedfellows  – the AMA and the insurance industry.

    Couple all this with more than 100 years of unrelenting propaganda, not to mention, a political system rotten-to-the-core from unbridled patronage, and we have on our hands… a prescription for disaster.

    Best regards,


  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    Please try and open up a bit and tell us how you really feel!

    Lark, as he says, is not an ignorant commentator.  So at the very least, his rant here is a good indicator of how bad things have gotten for this industry. 

    We may all differ in our choice of adjectives to describe the situation, but he is surely right that the issues are of a systemic nature.

  3. Greg Krauska
    Greg Krauska says:

    Charlie, terrific thoughts on this topic.  Many companies are amping up their environmental and social goodness images recently.  They would be smart to follow through with action.  Customers have pretty reliable BS meters.

    As for the industry in question, when even the people who can’t afford to buy refuse a well-intended hand-out, then you know you have far more than a PR problem. 

  4. Robert
    Robert says:

    I left the financial advising business in 1997 as the commission system encouraged poor advise and churning of investments. Fee for service just couldn’d get off the ground then.

    Strangly, I was far better off working in a financiaL field on salaryand using my investment knowledge for my own benifit.

    Things don’t seem to have improved much in the past 10 years. I am sure I am far better off financially and have a completly clear concence and have never given poor advice to any one. Investing ones own money is much more fun.

    The stories ones reads of financial advisors placing funds in to completly inapproperate investments for clients for large commissions is an everyday event here in Australia as I am sure it is in youe country.

    Inexperienced investors and retiries are still losing all their life savings to unscrupulous advisors. The regulators here are unable to prevent it.

    I would enjoy having a fee for service financial advice business, where I could charge for my time and know I was doing a community service.


    Fee for srevice is still the way to go I believe.

    Fortunatly I don"t need to work or thers  as my investment stratagy has been very successful with out taking risks.


    It is probably a pity I haven’t been in in a position to help others.

  5. Louvenia Lewis RN
    Louvenia Lewis RN says:

    I agree that many companies are in need of ethical and moral over haul. As amatter of fact the whole world can use a little help in this area. However, if it wasn’t for the advancement in the phameceutical industry, thousands of the world’s population would not exsist today. Therefore, I will not give up hope and I will contiue to look for a solution to the problen and hope that maybe someday I might be a contributor to helping to solve the industry’s problem I have one more class to completeing my BSN and I am continuing on to complete my MSN. Someone has to do the math or we are all doomed. Just think of the bugs that become resistant to antibiotics and the new ones that arrive on the scene. what would we do if the phameceutical companies shout down? consider this, nurses have been known for their honesty and their ability to establish lasting and notable relationships with clients. Who, better to assist the industry, in bridging the gap between the clients , educating them, thereby, promoting a healty future and positive outcomes.

  6. glass trophy
    glass trophy says:

    I agree with what Mr. Charlie said that "Nursing is uniformly ranked as the most trusted profession of all." Nurses are taught to build rapport with their patients so that the patients will trust them & believe them when they tell them something. Imagine would you let someone you don’t trust with a scalpel on their hand to treat you?! I say not. My point is that maybe the Pharmaceutical Industries can learn from nurses, ao they have a lesson on building rapport & trust.

  7. glass trophy
    glass trophy says:

    I agree with what Mr. Charlie said that "Nursing is uniformly ranked as the most trusted profession of all." Nurses are taught to build rapport with their patients so that the patients will trust them & believe them when they tell them something. Imagine would you let someone you don’t trust with a scalpel on their hand to treat you?! I say not. My point is that maybe the Pharmaceutical Industries can learn from nurses, ao they have a lesson on building rapport & trust.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *