WHITEHORSE STATION, NJ: As Merck faces what is perhaps its biggest PR trial in recent memory - the recall of blockbuster drug Vioxx - it is also confronting challenges that might impact patients' acceptance of its next arthritis pain reliever.
The healthcare practice at GCI Group is closely watching the Vioxx recall as it prepares to launch Merck's next-generation cox-2 inhibitor, Arcoxia.
"We've definitely been working with them to monitor what's in the media," said AnnaMaria DeSalva, EVP of healthcare North America at GCI Group.
The Food and Drug Administration, which was expected to pass judgment on Arcoxia by the end of this month, is likely to postpone its decision due to the Vioxx recall.
Merck did not return calls seeking comment.
Michael Zbinovec, director and pharmaceutical analyst at Fitch Ratings, noted that investors will closely watch the FDA's decision on Arcoxia. He added, however, that Merck does have PR goodwill.
"They handled it right away; they didn't wait," said Zbinovec. "Merck is pretty up front when it comes down to it."
"The reservoir of goodwill in the market buys you the benefit of the doubt," said Peter Morrissey, president and CEO of Morrissey & Co. and a crisis communications expert. "It allows them to rebuild their reputation in the marketplace quicker." Morrissey is not working on Merck's crisis team.
Merck has addressed patient concerns on its Vioxx website, and made CEO Raymond Gilmartin accessible to the media as the recall crisis unfolded.
"I commend Mr. Gilmartin for the character he showed and the visibility he took as CEO," said Michael Fineman, president of Fineman PR, which specializes in crises.
Fineman, who is not working with Merck, added that such access is not typical. "He told Merck's story before anyone else could."
The company still needs to bolster patient confidence for Arcoxia, which would compete with Pfizer's Celebrex and Bextra as well as older-generation pain relievers.
Pfizer is doing its own media outreach to stress the safety of its arthritis drugs. Health information company Verispan reported that Pfizer captured 70% of patient switches within the first week after the recall.
"Obviously [Merck is] going to need to educate physicians," Zbinovec said. "The best way to [restore patient confidence] is through physicians."
Law firms also stepped up PR in their search for plaintiffs to participate in a host of class action suits contending that Merck failed to notify the public of Vioxx's health risks. The company had previously refuted independent studies that linked Vioxx to heart problems.
"They really need to speak plainly," Fineman said, adding that the company should continue to be accessible to patients and the media.