When Nancy Pekarek assumed her new position as the VP of communications for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in July 2008, it was the next step in a storied 15-year career with the second-largest pharmaceutical company in the world.
Over the past year, Pekarek has visibly enhanced GSK's reputation as a social media leader with the launch of an external blog in May, an internal blog, a Twitter feed, and the creation of a social media position within the company's corporate communications team.
Considering how heavily regulated the pharmaceutical industry is, and that most Big Pharma companies are exceptionally reluctant about communicating on the unfettered Web, the decision to put GSK in the social media spotlight is a daring one.
Social media is not an entirely new venture for the company – GSK launched alliconnect, one of the first product blogs, for its weight-loss drug alli in 2007. Yet, it is in small company, as Johnson & Johnson is the only US healthcare company of the same size and scale as GSK that has launched a corporate blog.
“This is a space that we're feeling our way through,” Pekarek says. “We're going to make mistakes, there's no doubt about that. But if we're committed to having conversations, we need to be open and attempt to learn and to do, and that's what we decided to try.”
Given Pekarek's knowledge and understanding of GSK, it makes sense that she would be the one to push the company into social media. She worked through two of the company's mergers and spent nearly four years living in London serving as part of the global media relations team.
Now, she manages a staff of 33 in the US, with responsibility for product communications, internal communications, executive communications, and media relations for the US pharmaceutical business.
Pekarek reports to Deirdre Connelly, president of North American Pharmaceuticals for GSK, and indirectly to Duncan Learmouth, SVP of corporate communications and community partnerships, who is based in the UK.
Eye on the future
Pekarek has shown she believes that social media is not just a useful approach to reach stakeholders, but also a critical feature to GSK's overall corporate communications strategy.
In September 2008, she began talking with Michael Fleming, then a senior director of product communications, about creating a social media position. By October, he had been named the senior director of social media.
Around the same time, the company launched an internal blog and prepared for the launch of its external More than Medicine blog. As part of the development process, the team launched the external blog in January as a pilot before opening it up to the public in May 2009.
The More than Medicine blog, which aims to encourage dialogue with GSK's various stakeholders, is not for product promotion, Pekarek is quick to note.
“Our intention there is to talk more about healthcare policy and healthcare issues,” she explains. These can include disease states, health-related news items, prevention, treatment questions, and healthcare reform.
Fleming says that part of his new job is to raise the social media proficiency in the corporate group, and to ensure the GSK team is well aware of the trends and tools that are available and top of mind with both the media and the public.
“I think that she had in mind that this was a critical area for communications and that we needed to devote some resources to it,” he says. “She's very smart, very strategic. She understood that the landscape for communications is changing rapidly.”
For a communicator like Pekarek, social media came with its own learning curve, and she laughs when she talks about the differences in social media use and proficiency among different generations.
Social media is an issue that has faced seasoned PR pros for years, but what makes the pharmaceutical industry so unique is how heavily regulated it is. For the executives and legal team that worried about repercussions within the interactive communications format, she informed them that less-than-positive feedback would occur.
“I've been very clear that we'll get negative comments,” Pekarek notes. “But they also see that the world is changing and the Internet is a very powerful tool. They recognize the need to learn more about that space.”
She's championed the external blog, its corresponding Twitter feed, and the internal blog in her current role, but prior to her promotion, she also helped get the company started with videos and RSS feeds, Fleming says.
“She'd always been a big champion for that kind of activity, recognizing, again, that more and more of her stakeholders are going online,” he notes. “Nancy has been a real catalyst behind our efforts to explore new ways of reaching our stakeholders, including through new and social media channels.”
To really understand social media, Pekarek says that GSK has had discussions with Google, as well as other companies, to learn and understand the capabilities that other companies have and how they view the future of social media.
The right background
After working in media relations and on the company's mergers, both in the US and in the UK, Pekarek was named VP of corporate media relations in the US in 2001 and spent the next seven years building up her team and program's sophisticated media strategy.
Even now, she says she is pushing to post a more specialized list of media spokespeople to the Web site, to better assist reporters with tight deadlines.
“She understood better than our internal people how to really interact with media and the press,” says Bob Ingram, vice chairman of pharmaceuticals of GSK and former CEO. “I've yet to meet with... an analyst or a media person who has worked with Nancy that doesn't have very positive things to say about the interaction they've had.”
When Pekarek talks about the challenges facing the company, the fact that there are fewer reporters available to cover what she says is a “huge amount of news” is crucial to how GSK's communications strategy has shifted over the past year.
“I think she's strategic in her approach to things,” Ingram adds. “She's greatly improved our communications effort, both internally and externally, since she's assumed the head of US communications role.”
Part of that strategy is ensuring the communications and the business are not separate.
“In the position that I have currently, it's important to me that you're talking across all audiences,” Pekarek says. “Media relations is not siloed apart from internal communications, nor is internal communications separated from product communications.”
This concept is, partly, what has fueled her interest in using social media as a communications tool because she believes that a company's messaging should be consistent, regardless of the audience, and that it should correspond with the organization's overall business goals.
“I do think that understanding the strategy and understanding the business are critical,” she adds. “I think it's important for communications to have the discipline to align itself to the needs of the business, as opposed to doing interesting things that don't actually help the bottom line.”
The pharmaceutical industry, including GSK, is facing its share of industry challenges over the next few years. While communications tools might change, Pekarek believes that she and her team have a responsibility to “ensure that communications is increasingly seen as a strategic partner in the business.”
And, continuing to apply messaging that is consistent to the organization's business goals has never been more crucial for the GSK communications team.
“We have a responsibility to demonstrate our value to the organization,” she says.
GlaxoSmithKline, VP of communications
January 2001-July 2008
GlaxoSmithKline, VP of corporate media relations US
February 2000-January 2001
Glaxo Wellcome, head of global internal communications
Glaxo and Glaxo Wellcome, various media relations positions
North Carolina Office of the Governor, director of communications
GSK in the news in 2009
New US president - January
The company announced that Deirdre Connelly, the former president of Eli Lilly's US operations, had been named the president of GlaxoSmithKline's US business
Pfizer partnership - April
Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline, the world's two largest drug makers, announced they are creating a joint company that will pool their HIV/AIDS programs
H1N1 outbreak - April
GlaxoSmithKline, which makes both an antiviral and vaccine that can treat the swine flu virus, has steadily communicated its role as a vaccine provider as the world faces a possible pandemic
More than Medicine blog - May
The company launched a US-based corporate blog, making it one of the first pharmaceutical companies to begin a dialogue that starts, primarily, from a blogging platform