Roth's efforts continue to earn pharma industry's trust

As a partner at BMC Communications and the outgoing chairman of the PRSA Health Academy, Michael Roth works to foster an inclusive, relevant, and trustworthy healthcare industry.

As a partner at BMC Communications and the outgoing chairman of the PRSA Health Academy, Michael Roth works to foster an inclusive, relevant, and trustworthy healthcare industry.

Healthcare PR is a diverse and multifaceted field, but a few years ago, you might not have known that from the PRSA Health Academy.

"When I began going to meetings, it seemed [as if] agencies were just talking to each other," recalls Michael Roth, outgoing chairman. "All these great [healthcare PR] people, but no one knew what anyone else was doing."

As chairman, Roth would lead the academy's board of directors as it sought to create a stronger, more cohesive group for healthcare PR pros.

"Michael came to help the academy at a time when we were galvanizing more support from our membership," says Philip Swayze, incoming chairman and manager of content services for the health and wellness division of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island. "He insisted that we provide overarching themes [with] a broader approach."

Roth wanted to make the academy more relevant, "breaking down the silos in the industry," adds Swayze.

For its staple event - the annual conference - Roth mandated that sessions had to be case studies; agencies could act as consultants, but clients had to be present. "I said, 'We need to focus on what matters to people,'" Roth says.

A larger promotions effort focused on building a new identity and recruiting new members. "It was trying to bring some discipline and continuity" to the group, says Nancy Bacher Long, president of Dorland Public Relations.

You might say that Roth prefers working with - and building up - organizations that fly under the radar.

While he was looking hard at the academy's reputation, he also grappled with the same issue that bedeviled many members: How to reverse declining trust in the healthcare industry.

As executive director of communications for Novartis, Roth was charged with building the drug giant's image.

Even though the Basel, Switzerland-based company (one of the world's 10 largest) was well-known globally, it did not have the same US profile as companies like Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson.

At Novartis, Roth oversaw media, grassroots, and advertising reputation efforts at a time when public confidence in the drug industry was on par with that of the tobacco industry. He also provided strategic counsel around litigation and crisis communications, and created new media policies for the company.

"We leveraged things that Novartis was doing in each sector," Roth says, citing its philanthropic and CSR initiatives as examples. "The job was to get Novartis noticed more in the US."

In addition to targeting publications, the company "brought in the best and brightest thought leaders" to host intellectual roundtables on issues like Medicare and pandemics, Roth recalls.

"People don't trust drug companies [or] hospitals," he says. "People used to look up to people in healthcare."

But working inside a big pharma company wasn't what Roth had envisioned for the long term; he "knew in [his] heart" that he wanted a different experience. "Novartis was incredible, but it was corporate," he explains.

When he decided to leave Novartis, a headhunter said he'd have his pick of positions. The big agencies beckoned.

But Roth chose a partnership opportunity at BMC Communications, a boutique agency specializing in biotech and biopharmaceutical companies.

Like the companies he now counsels, Roth describes his niche as growing something from the ground up. "I was interested in the idea of building a business," he says. "I wanted to have more of an impact on what I was doing."

Today's biotech business is changing, he notes; instead of spending years developing compounds only to license them to bigger pharmaceutical companies, biotechs have become more interested in launching their own products.

These companies seek agencies that can merge the two worlds of the start-up and the industry leader. "They don't feel that big firms understand biotech," Roth says. "They want a consultant who understands the way they work."

Roth actually never saw himself in either healthcare or PR. He wanted to be a jazz musician, but music didn't pay the bills, so he pursued a law degree.

He made Law Review, and a career as a corporate attorney seemed in the cards. But once he started practicing, "it just didn't feel right," he recalls. He called his sister, an SVP at Porter Novelli. "I told her, 'I'm fed up with this.'"

She suggested PR, and Roth took a job at Cooney Waters Group, then a boutique firm with about five staffers.

One of his first assignments included a trip to a Spring Break destination to produce a VNR for Burroughs Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) for genital herpes drug Zovirax. (He later also launched next-generation Valtrex.)

"It was an eye-opening experience," he says. "I was having fun." From Cooney Waters, he joined Makovsky & Co., in part because of a personal connection to one of its accounts. "They were working on an account for Lou Gehrig's disease, and I knew someone with the disease," he says.

When North American president Bob Pearson tried to lure him to GCI Group, Roth admits, he'd "never heard of [it], but I really believed in Pearson."

There he led the team that helped launch a blockbuster drug that catapulted a small specialty pharmaceutical company to a major industry player.

The drug was Lexapro, a second-generation antidepressant, and the medical and business communities wondered if Forest Laboratories could differentiate it from older medications.
"In launching the product, we were entering a very crowded marketplace," recalls Julissa Viana, who worked with Roth at GCI. But Lexapro was lauded as one of the top drug launches of all time, earning Forest glowing press after years of negative publicity.

"He's so thoughtful and passionate," says Viana, now senior manager of US product and scientific communications at Sanofi-Aventis. "He's probably one of the few great PR minds out there."

The healthcare group also doubled in size by the time Roth left for Novartis. The entire firm, in fact, grew "from a small family shop to a bigger shop," he says. "I enjoyed the growing pains."

Michael Roth

April 2005-present
BMC Communications, partner

February 2004-April 2005
Novartis, executive director of comms

GCI Group, SVP and director of the New York healthcare practice

Makovsky & Co., account supervisor, then VP

Cooney Waters Group, AE, SAE

RIR, AE and general counsel

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