GSK's Phil Thomson on pharma transparency post-Seroxat

As GSK grapples with tougher market access and public suspicion of the pharma industry, senior v-p of global comms Phil Thomson is planning a corporate future that reflects society's values. Suzy Bashford reports.

As we meander through The Street, GSK's indoor answer to corporate cafe culture, colleagues sip lattes, grab lunch or shop. The company's senior vice-president of global comms Phil Thomson points out the landmark sites. As we walk past one of the glass-fronted offices next to the cafe, he casually mentions: 'Oh yes, and that's where our CEO Andrew Witty's office is.'

There couldn not be a clearer signal that Witty, and his wingman Thomson, are serious about this transparency business. The location of Witty's office is especially significant when you consider that his predecessor occupied a space in the lofty heights of The Tower, miles from the din of the crowds.

Indeed, Thomson says a big part of his new job is 'making sure we're not "ivory towered"'. He says: 'There is a scenario, particularly in-house, where you can fall into believing everything happens within your own four walls.'

A GSK 'lifer', having joined the company in 1997 as a graduate trainee, Thomson was appointed to his new role last August as part of sweeping structural and cultural changes led by Witty. With such a sprawling company spanning so many sectors and countries, it made sense, he says, to appoint someone who knew GSK inside out.

Wake-up call

Clearly, scandals around some of its drugs in recent years, particularly the debacle over its anti-depressant Seroxat (GSK was accused of holding back important data that indicated the drug may have led to child suicides), have been a wake-up call.

Thomson is quick to set out GSK's stall: of course pharmaceutical companies should publish research that casts doubt over the efficacy of its drugs. The problem, he says, has been how pharma companies get their research data published, which was ultimately why the revelations about Seroxat took so long to emerge.

He explains: 'Journals like The Lancet and the British Medical Journal want data that is interesting and clearly the interesting data shows some kind of difference. They don't want studies that have failed (to show a significant difference in efficacy against the norm). We wrestle with the challenge of how you make your information available.'

Since 2009, GSK more proactively seeks the publication of all research data, whether the results show its products in a positive or negative light. If the results are not chosen for publication in the journals, GSK self-publishes the studies on its Clinical Study Register, adding extra relevant information.

Also, the company strives to be much more transparent about its relationships with healthcare professionals and people involved in the collation of data. For instance, since last year GSK has disclosed when it pays a doctor or professional medical writer to work on the market access process for its drugs.

But if GSK has really learned so much from past cases, why is it currently in another battle with UK drugs regulators over diabetes drug Avandia, and being criticised by the British Medical Journal for its approach to research here too? Thomson believes the answer sheds light on another enormously thorny issue in healthcare comms: with such a diverse range of stakeholders interested in the company's news, you need to make a daily judgement call on who you talk to and when.

A 2007 research study by the New England Journal of Medicine found the risk of a heart attack increased 43 per cent if patients were taking Avandia. But debate raged on for the next few years, with the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and European Medicines Agency (EMA) only recommending within the past few months that doctors should stop prescribing it.

Scientific debate

GSK actively took the decision not to talk about the issue over the past three years with anyone other than the regulators. 'The whole issue around Avandia was fundamentally about science and how you interpret data,' says Thomson. 'The appropriate place to have a debate about that is a scientific arena. So, should we be making our case in the Daily Mail or making our case with the FDA? The answer is absolutely obvious.'

But operating in such an emotive sphere, with products that tackle problems ranging from Alzheimer's to child suicide, it is no wonder the media take an interest. Thomson is 'hugely' uncomfortable with the fact that in healthcare comms the media can sometimes associate everything that happens at GSK with one drug, though he realises 'it's part and parcel of how the media work'.

Nevertheless, he is clearly good at driving the media agenda too, when he wants to. One of the walls in his office is testament to this. It is clad with front-page stories that feature GSK. There is one about the company's malaria vaccine, published when Cheryl Cole was ill. Another where its slimming pill Alli upstages President Obama's inauguration in the London Evening Standard. And plenty about Witty's plans for GSK.

One of Thomson's prime ambitions for next year is no doubt to position the pharma company as a driver for positive social change through healthcare, a subject he mentions throughout our discussion. He defines CSR as building a business around what it does for society, rather than the old-school approach of throwing some money at a project.

Developing countries

A good example of this is GSK's malaria vaccine, which is of huge interest worldwide but unaffordable for those in developing countries who need it most: 'So then our business becomes about how we price that vaccine and make it available in a country that can't afford it.'

As he sees it, companies like GSK must be able to talk about what they are doing to expand their business and how this fits with society's values. So, rather than being an adjunct, CSR courses through the veins of the company.

This shift will overhaul often negative perceptions of pharma companies in consumers' eyes, he hopes. In five to ten years, he says, GSK's reputation will be 'significantly improved'.

'I hope there will be a broader awareness of why and how a healthcare company can deliver back to society,' he says. 'That's where I want GSK to move to. In certain specialist audiences we are gaining traction. But, with broader audiences, we've still got a long way to go.'

How I see it

Nick Eul-Barker, Research director at ICM Research

This research shows the difficult branding job pharma companies face. Although the poll also found that 81 per cent of people recognised pharma firms' contribution to the health sector, there is still doubt that consumers are being told everything they feel they need to know about side effects, patient outcomes and treatment efficiency. There is still work to do on treatment communication, which is especially true of older consumers who are more reliant on pharma-delivered treatments.

Thomson's agenda

GSK's new comms structure includes comms experts in a host of different countries and business functions, as well as the core media team working on customer and investor relations.

How Thomson gets these 300 comms staff to work consistently on the global stage is the most pressing thing on his mind. Recruiting and developing the 'right' people is one of his top priorities. His aim is to find multi-skilled comms professionals who also have leadership skills and can deal with internal, as well as external, comms problems.

Working in such a complex market, he is also on the lookout for people who can deal with the many stakeholders involved, from patients to healthcare professionals to NGOs.

Agency views

Accessible leadership is a great start in any big organisation. GSK underlined its commitment to transparency last year when it decided to publish fees paid to prescribers. And the legal charge announced this year, in anticipation of multiple lawsuits, was a sign of a readiness to take responsibility for past mistakes.

Peter Coe, Director, Tudor Reilly


Companies must present a 'whole-company' face to all their publics so, as Thomson says, 'pharma will be seen as a driver for positive social change'.A test of the mettle would be to track how comms budgets are being redistributed to support this.

Jo Spadaccino, Head of pharma and life sciences, Pegasus PR


It isn't a surprise that clinical data, new drug developments and the transparency of clinical trials attract as much attention from the Daily Mail as they do from the Food & Drug Administration. We all know that bad news sells papers. We only have to cast our minds back several years to Barbara Clark's public battle to receive Roche's Herceptin, a battle that was in no small part fuelled by the national media.

Paul Tanner, Co-founder/director, 90TEN Healthcare


The past decade may arguably be remembered as one of discord and dissonance, but things are changing. There is now an outright requirement for healthcare professionals to work collaboratively with health service and medicines providers to drive the positive social change Phil Thomson describes. Partnerships based on mutual trust and respect that have been genuinely earned are vital to support that change.

Sarah Wrixon, Managing partner, Salix Consulting

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