May 19

The spokesperson from hell

Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. has some kind of crisis on its hands. Seems a 'celebrity' spokesperson hired by the pharmaceutical maker to shill for its bipolar disorder medication, Abilify, not only stopped taking it, but now says the pill made him feel worse than anything else he's taken before or since. Ouch!

May 19 - Sum05_SOAndy Behrman, who suffers from bipolar disorder, underwent electric shock therapy and later wrote a book about his struggles, was paid a total of $400,000 over the course of a few years to say good things about Abilify. Problem is, he didn't like it, only took it for a few days and said it caused 'stiffness and agitation in his legs' and 'clouded his thinking.'

Bristol-Myers spokespeople said Berman never breathed a word about his issues with the drug while under contract. Behrman says otherwise. In addition to slamming Bristol-Myers, the spokesperson from hell also threw a PR agency media trainer named Elyse Margolis under the bus. He says she schooled him to reiterate in interviews that Abilify had no side effects; to say the drug had 'saved' him; and to avoid mentioning he was being paid by Bristol-Myers. If asked about the latter, he was to answer truthfully, say he couldn't disclose the amount and 'move on.'

This is one tough dilemma. What does an organization do when it has a rogue spokesperson on its hands? Behrman is no longer under contract and free to say anything he wants (which he's obviously doing in spades). For its part, Bristol-Myers is trotting out other, happier spokespeople to defend the drug, which rang up sales of $2.15 billion last year. The big pharma company can only hope The Wall Street Journal article doesn't spawn a feeding frenzy by a 24X7 news beast just spoiling for a new crisis.

We've never had to deal with a true spokesperson from hell. My partner, Ed, once worked with a software maker CEO who also happened to be a part-time cult leader. He claimed to elevate people and turn conference rooms gold. Happily, he only discussed software challenges in the interviews we arranged. Another media-trained client did a remarkable job in a Crain's Chicago Business interview. He kept to the script, nailed his points and happily escorted the reporter to the elevator. And, that's where everything went South. 'Great office space,' mused the reporter. 'Oh, we're moving next week,' responded the effusive client. 'In fact, we've signed a long-term lease for 20,000 square feet on Main Street.' Guess what angle the reporter chose to pursue?

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