Apr 17

I’m losing patience with the company claiming to care so much about patients

Merck’s new corporate advertising campaign depicts how sensitive and caring the company is when it comes to "…providing medicine for patients who need it most." The tear-jerker of a spot shows one poor, working class patient after another being helped by Merck meds to solve a malady that might otherwise go untreated. Merck

This would be smart advertising if it didn’t fly in the face of Merck’s transgressions with Vioxx, the painkilling medication that has been linked to causing massive heart attacks in "patients" who have taken it. Despite countless examples of the drug doing such a dastardly deed, Merck not only denies fault, but has been found guilty of covering up negative reports and continuing to aggressively market Vioxx to unsuspecting docs and, yes, patients.

Now comes news that another Merck drug, Fosamax, may also be wreaking damage. The osteoporosis med has been linked with a disease called osteonecrosis, which causes the jaw bone to wither and die. Talk about jaw-dropping news. Ouch!

Once again, Merck is in full denial mode, saying Fosamax hasn’t been linked to any such problems and continuing to market it aggressively in the marketplace.

Merck was once seen as a bellwether of corporate responsibility, an image its hoping to rekindle via the new ad campaign. Sadly, though, the Vioxx and Fosamax debacles not only undermine such an effort, they’re actually speeding an unintentional re-positioning "side effect." Many people now see Merck as a cold, uncaring company with one goal in mind: pushing highly destructive pills to docs and patients alike. I, for one, am having an adverse reaction to Merck’s meds marketing messages.

Apr 12

Merck mess makes for murky messaging

Yesterday’s New Jersey court ruling against Merck in yet another Vioxx lawsuit is much more than a legal and financial disaster for the big pharmaceutical manufacturer. It means that Merck has to figure out a way to paint a positive picture about itself despite compelling and damning evidence to the contrary.12tab

So, how should Merck distance itself from its boorish and, perhaps, criminal behavior on Vioxx? Its current "feel good" advertising campaign is laughable, since it talks about how caring and compassionate the corporation is. Try telling that to the families of the many Vioxx victims.

I think it’s time for Merck to step up to the plate, admit fault, set aside an agreed upon dollar figure that will alleviate the pain and suffering of the victims’ families and move on. But, before they move on, Merck needs to create some sort of "best standards" practice for drug reviews and marketing strategies. Taking a page out of the Texaco playbook after that company was pilloried for its horrific racial policies. Merck should go on the offensive and bring in noted experts who can help them revamp their standard operating procedures. Texaco did so, and was quickly seen as one of the most progressive and minority-friendly workplaces in the country.

Merck can turn things around, but they need to admit fault, yank the self-serving corporate campaign and get to work creating a world-class product review and marketing support process. Until then, their image and reputation will continue to take hits.

Apr 05

It won’t happen to me

I had the opportunity yesterday to address about 50 risk managers representing some of America’s largest, best-known mutual funds. The subject of their two-day conference was mitigating the risks of identity theft, a huge and growing problem for an industry that is growing by leaps and bounds (fully 50 percent of Americans now invest part of their savings in mutual funds).

I was on hand to discuss the crisis communications ramifications of identity theft. The executives were anxious to know how they should respond to, and properly communicate, the next breech, what the media’s motivations are in covering such a crisis and whether there were any "best practices" I could share from other corporate crisis case studies.

Before touching on any of those issues, however, I started my talk by asking two simple questions: "How many organizations represented in the room had a formal crisis plan in place?" Most did. And, "Of those who had a plan, how many had taken the time to simulate an actual crisis to test their processes?" Most hadn’t.

My call to action yesterday was the same one I’ve been sending for years: test your crisis response plan. The last thing in the world an organization wants or needs is to "test" its plan in the harsh klieg lights of live television crews on hand to report on the breaking crisis. Just ask that poor mining company CEO who incorrectly stated that all 12 miners were alive and well when in fact, 11 of 12 had already perished.

Crisis simulation is not a big time commitment. It can be done in as little as three hours. And, its potential benefits are huge. Executives will know exactly what’s expected of them if and when the unforeseen and unexpected occur. They’ll know how to "divide and conquer" in order to make sure every key constituent audience is communicated with during a crisis. They’ll know what to say, to whom, and when. They’ll even be able to measure and evaluate their performance in the immediate aftermath of a crisis.

In today’s world, where a corporate reputation can be destroyed in a nanosecond, it boggles the mind to think that most organizations still don’t invest the time to test their crisis response plans. I had hoped the pre-9/11 mindset of "….it won’t happen to me" had disappeared along with the twin towers. Sadly, and alarmingly, it remains alive and well in Corporate America.

Mar 29

The baddest cat on the planet needs a re-positioning campaign

A Connecticut cat is under ‘house arrest’ for biting six different people in the neighborhood, according to published reports.

Louie the cat, perhaps acting out his favorite Hip-Hop songs, has been a positive terror in his ‘hood as he leaps, lunges and latches onto the nearest human, biting or scratching away precious calf muscle, tendons, and god knows what else.

Assuming the cat wants to continue living, I suggest his owners immediately implement a crisis re-positioning campaign.

Having counseled many mean-spirited humans seeking to soften their tough guy images, I’d suggest the following:

1.) Rename Louie. Call him Fluffy, Cuddles or, maybe, even Honey Bun. If he does continue his pit bull impersonation, victims would be too embarrassed to admit they’d been bitten by Cuddles the cat.

2.) Embark on a therapy and re-training program to change his Mike Tyson-like deportment and issue "progress reports" along the way. This will make everyone glad to see the cat has admitted fault and is making amends. As anyone in my business will tell you, Crisis Communications 101 calls for admitting fault and putting corrective steps in place to make sure whatever happened never happens again.

3.) Go on the speaking circuit as an anti-violence advocate and educator. The media would take to this strategy like a kitty does to catnip. They’d eat it up, especially Oprah. Just imagine Cuddles the cat telling all those fawning women in Oprah’s studio audience about how he overcame his hostile and aggressive tendencies and today schools other felines about their anger management issues.

4.) The little guy should also think about penning an autobiography. How about this for a working title: "My bite is worse then my mew"

There are probably scores of other strategies the cat and his handlers could implement to re-position the vicious little bastard. Assuming he can reform his horrific habits and, assuming his owners decide they don’t want him anymore, we’d certainly welcome him in our office. I’m sure he’d make quick work of our mice problem.

Mar 16

Crisis? What Crisis?

Every company has a worst case scenario. For airlines it’s a plane crash, for mining companies it’s a tunnel collapse and for pharmaceutical companies it’s a new drug causing life threatening side affects to trial participants. So it’s staggering that again and again companies faced with a crisis continue to operate an ineffectual crisis communications plan when the worst happens.Drugs_pills303

A UK drug trial ended in painful swelling and suffering for six of the eight participants on Monday. More specific details have unfolded through the media on a daily basis and today an exclusive TV interview with one of the volunteers was aired, revealing the harrowing scenes experienced by those taking part. In addition to damaging newspaper headlines, quotes such as "Some screamed out that their heads felt like they were going to explode" and "he looked like the Elephant Man" have been filling the tickers on the rolling news channels.

So what has been the response from TeGenero, the German manufacturer of the drug? Two statements, both made yesterday, both apologising for the event, both of which refer to the trial’s approval by the UK regulatory authority. Both TeGenero and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency have made a lackluster response to the incident. Neither have made a spokesman available for TV interviews, neither have fully explained what happened, neither have tried to give any context to the situation and both have suffered the consequences with this story being told almost solely from the perspective of the victims.

TeGenero’s corporate image has suffered a massive hit, however, the damage to the reputation of the UK’s drug testing system could have a far wider business impact. While there is always going to be an element of risk in developing pharmaceuticals, participants in drug trials must have a level of confidence and understanding of the safety implications. Without this confidence the necessary cash incentives will not be enough to supply the number of volunteers needed, which could have grave implications for the potentially life saving drugs currently under development.

Thanks to Carl Foster in Peppercom’s UK office for this post.

Mar 14

Sanofi-Aventis continues to sleep walk as Ambien’s reputation takes a bashing

A new study being published by the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Clinic links the sleeping pill Ambien with middle-of-the-night visits to the fridge by people who ingest the pill. Some wake up with food in their mouths. Others find they have gained tremendous weight as a result of the bizarre side effect.

This latest revelation comes on the heels of last week’s nightmarish shocker that linked Ambien to automobile accidents caused by people who had taken the drug but had no recollection of having been in a car crash.

And, just like last week, Sanofi-Aventis, maker of Ambien, remains in la-la land when it comes to defending the drug’s odd side effects or suggesting proactive steps aimed at uncovering the pill’s problem. Instead, their lead spokesperson once again said the company "…has received reports of people eating while sleepwalking and those reports, like all reports of adverse events, have been provided to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration."

I’m sure that statement satisfies the corporation’s legal team, but it does nothing to qualm consumer fears or demonstrate that the organization is a caring, compassionate corporate citizen.

If they continue to bungle their crisis management on the Ambien issue, Sanofi-Aventis may see the drug’s sales go night-night in the very near future.

Mar 08

C’mon Ambien. Wake up before it’s too late!

A spokesperson for Sanofi-Aventis, maker of Ambien, said today: "We are aware of reports of people driving while sleepwalking, and those reports have been provided to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as part of our ongoing post-marketing evaluation about the safety of the products." This somnambulant statement was in response to published reports that Ambien-related driving Ambien arrests are increasing faster than Google’s stock price. In fact, many drivers who have been arrested for unsafe driving later said they had no memory of taking the wheel after taking the drug.

Sanofi-Aventis could have a major crisis on its hands if it continues to sit in the passenger seat rather than taking the wheel on this issue. So, instead of issuing watered-down statements about following protocols, they should instead be suggesting a blue-ribbon panel be created to investigate the incidents.

With more than 26 million Ambien prescriptions written last year, the company has a legal, moral and ethical responsibility to open an investigation. Plus, it would be a smart corporate responsibility move on their part.

Sadly, though, it seems the company will follow the lead of so many of its peers and remain in that never-never land between sleeping and being fully awake. Corporate communications professionals need to step up in situations like these and counsel senior management (and the legal beagals) about the tremendous brand damage a do-nothing approach might cause. All they’d have to do is ask a few former marketing people from Arthur Andersen who, in the wake of the Enron meltdown, waited too long and said too little in their defense. The corporate graveyard is littered with the corpses of organizations who may have "won" in court but "lost" in the court of public opinion.

Mar 02

Katrina conundrum continues to confound

Could you imagine any CEO or corporate communications department bungling things as badly as the White House has with its Hurricane Katrina missteps? Yesterday’s videotapes clearly showed the Video_1 president being briefed of Katrina’s potential damage prior to the storm. Yet, typically, the White House issued a statement suggesting "people shouldn’t read too much into the videotape." Talk about straining credulity.

Happily, corporate boards are becoming much more proactive when the CEO refuses to communicate in times of crisis (think Radio Shack). But, as we know, there is no board to step in and advise, cajole or counsel the President.

Whether it’s the war, the Dubai port scandal, the Cheney shooting or, now, the Katrina controversy, this administration clearly believes less is more when it comes to communication.

Crisis communications 101 calls for swift, consistent messaging and, if appropriate, to admit fault. For whatever reason, "43" and team cannot or will not admit fault.

So, I ask other communicators, how would you counsel a CEO who will not accept responsibility for her or his actions? Short of resigning, there’s not much we can do. Which is why I’m so glad to see boards of directors becoming more aggressive in safeguarding the health and well-being of an organization.

Maybe some day some enterprising congressman will introduce legislation calling for an executive board to oversee the President and, in situations like the ones mentioned above, intervene and do the right thing? One can always hope…

Aside from the general population, the real losers in the Oval Office stonewalling are the Republicans running in the upcoming Mid-term elections. It’s tough enough to win without also having to distance oneself from what is rapidly becoming one of the least popular administrations in U.S. history.

Feb 22

Doing the right thing (at last)

Kudos to Radio Shack’s board of directors for acting quickly to boot CEO David J. Edmondson after he was caught lying about his academic credentials. The board executive chairman, Leonard H. Roberts, hit the nail on the head when he said the move was needed to safeguard Radio Shack’s Edmondson corporate reputation and image.

But, where were the corporate communications people when the crisis escalated and CEO Edmondson initially refused to resign? Story after story quoted "corporate spokespeople as only volunteering a meek "no comment." This behavior leads me to believe the lawyers were calling the shots during the crisis. Otherwise, why would any corporate communicator worth his or her salt mumble a worthless phrase like "no comment"? Crisis management 101 dictates that, even if a company has nothing to say as a crisis unfolds, it communicates caring and concern to its constituents and promises to share information when it becomes available. Except that is when the lawyers, who never want to communicate anything, get involved.

So, hats off to Radio Shack’s board. I’d give them an A-plus for decisiveness and crisis containment. As for the corporate communications department, let’s give them a C-minus. I’d suggest they use this incident as a case study to educate their peers in legal that "no comment" can often be perceived as evasiveness on the part of the organization. For a company that sells communications equipment, "no comment" statements simply aren’t acceptable ways to communicate during a crisis.

Feb 08

Pre-empting the competition

Regardless of how one feels about the controversial, highly-secretive Opus Dei sect of the Roman Catholic Church, one has to admire the aggressive, proactive public relations campaign underway to manage its image and reputation.

As most everyone knows, Opus Dei was pilloried in Dan Brown’s blockbuster bestseller "The DaVinci Code." And, while Opus Dei spokespeople defended the organization at the time the book came out, they’ve really shifted into high gear in anticipation of the May 19th movie launch starring Tom Hanks. In just the last 48 hours alone, Opus Dei has been positively profiled on the front page of The New York Times and Good Morning America.

Opus Dei is clearly receiving some very smart counsel. Its campaign is intended to demonstrate how how wrong Brown was and how normal its policies, procedures and people really are.

This is classic crisis communications strategy. By landing the first punch, Opus Dei is helping to frame its image as opposed to allowing the media and the movie to do so later on. It’s a smart move that would make even Mona Lisa break into a big grin.