Hefty Merck verdict spurs firms to rethink DTC efforts

ANGLETON, TX: Now that jurors have handed down a $253.5 million verdict against Merck, healthcare marketers are left debating what the massive award means for the future of direct-to-consumer outreach.

ANGLETON, TX: Now that jurors have handed down a $253.5 million verdict against Merck, healthcare marketers are left debating what the massive award means for the future of direct-to-consumer outreach.

Although the award cannot exceed $26.1 million under Texas law, it is still significant because of the message jurors seemed to be sending Merck and the industry in general.

"I was amazed at the size of the verdict, and it made me very sad," said Harry Sweeney, CEO of Dorland Global Health Communications and past president of the Healthcare Marketing & Communications Council. "It underscored ... the industry's failure to deflect and engage its critics. These were emotional issues, not factual issues."

Merck is currently working with APCO Worldwide on litigation communications. The agency did not return calls for comment.

The company has been sending reporters a statement from its general counsel emphasizing that it would appeal.

Donna Henry Wright, an attorney who is president of Wright Associates, a healthcare public affairs firm, noted that the verdict would have "huge implications" for drug companies.

"PR agencies will need to become a lot smarter and a lot better versed in regulatory issues," she said, adding that future healthcare PR teams will likely include a greater mix of doctors, lawyers, and regulatory experts.

Marketers, she added, are already making sweeping changes.

This month, Pfizer became the second company to self-impose a ban on new product ads to allow more time for physician education. The new policy also promises more ads on disease awareness, patient assistance programs, and drug risks.

Bristol-Myers Squibb was the first company to enact a ban.

Sweeney noted that drug companies must rethink not only their consumer marketing efforts, but also how they will court a now-skittish investment community.

"From a PR standpoint, it's a disaster," he said. "This is the ultimate wake-up call to pay attention to the public reactions to the industry."

Merck is emphasizing that the jury decided the case based on weak scientific evidence. But to many crisis experts, the fragility of the evidence only highlights the public's hostility toward the drug industry.

James Lukaszewski, chairman and president of crisis firm The Lukaszewski Group, noted that the verdict should spur other firms to examine how they disclose research findings.

"[Merck was] convicted by their own e-mail messages and their own internal attitudes," he said. "They withheld or intentionally ignored information."

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