Several months ago, Ray Kerins, a top Pfizer public relations exec, bemoaned the perception of the pharmaceutical industry in a speech that was widely viewed on the Internet. Here’s what he said:
“When we’re dealing with the media, I see a problem. If we’re not willing to engage, we only have ourselves to blame. I blame myself and those of us in the industry for the bad reputation the pharmaceutical industry has. We develop life-saving medicines that you take, that will prolong your life, that will help cure certain diseases. How in the hell do we have such a bad reputation? It makes no sense.”
He then disclosed that, prior to his arrival at Pfizer, the PR team routinely ignored initial media calls.
Of course, such policies only contributed to a larger problem – the growing debate over pricing, promotional practices and safety concerns that have been at the center of several controversies over the past few years. From ghostwritten journal articles and hidden clinical trial data to surreptitious funding of advocacy groups and senior citizens unable to afford their meds, the pharmaceutical industry has found itself on the defensive. The tales have played out in court, at congressional hearings and in the media.
But does the media really have it right? Are drug makers, basically, well-behaved entities, not counting some regrettable lapses? Or does the pharmaceutical industry hide behind its right to make profits as an excuse for failing to adopt more palatable business practices?
To explore the issue, the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists next month will hold a panel discussion at its conference in the UK on whether the industry’s image reflects the reality of self-inflicted wounds or the trumped-up product of journalists who are seeking a villain. Does that sound familiar? It should to our regular readers — a similar panel is planned in November in Monaco at the annual meeting of the International Forum on Mood and Anxiety Disorders.
And the panel has some interesting members: Vera Hassner Sharav, a consumer activist and industry critics who runs the Alliance for Human Research Protection; John Ilman, a former journalist at various UK papers who now runs a pr crisis management firm that serves, in part, drugmakers; Michael Rawlins, the chairman of the UK’s National Institute of Health & Clinical Excellence, which is famous for rejecting government coverage of certain meds due to cost; and Paul Stoffels, who oversees global research and development for Johnson & Johnson.
Expect some fireworks.