It was a sensational story, and though the connection between Chantix and the man's death was tenuous at best, the girlfriend's claim raised questions about the side effects of the drug (available in the US since 2006 and currently used by 5.5 million worldwide). The story went national, coverage expanded to reports of a slew of negative side effects, including suicidal thoughts, and issues were raised about label warnings.
After the second day of coverage, Pfizer engaged in full dialogue with the media. Senior medical and communications staff members were available to all reporters and Pfizer provided all information it had on the drug and the issues.
"Anyone [with] an outward-facing position at Pfizer had all information readily available," says Ray Kerins, Pfizer VP of worldwide communication and head of global media relations, who left Merck to join Pfizer a little over a year ago. "In the past, reporters would have gotten a statement. It's not enough to offer just a statement to any audience that has questions. There needs to be discussion."
On February 1, the FDA issued a Public Health Advisory on Chantix and requested new safety warnings on labels. Prior to the action, Pfizer voluntarily pulled branded ads and created videos for local TV markets featuring doctors discussing drug safety topics, including how to read product labels. Pfizer's handling of the Chantix issue represents a significant evolution in its communications policy, which, Kerins says, reflects CEO Jeff Kindler's leadership philosophy of customer engagement and transparency.
"Our team is changing the way pharma PR is done," says Sally Susman, who left her post as EVP of global communications at The EstŽe Lauder Companies to become Pfizer's chief communications officer - a newly created post - in February. "We have a mandate to change the dialogue. I'm particularly looking to close the perception gap between the noble, good work being done here and the way the industry is viewed. I report to the CEO and sit on the executive leadership team. [The fact] that he put a priority on communications attracted me to [accept the job]."
Susman's position gives communications a place in Pfizer's C-suite for the first time.
Pfizer is clearly dealing with major challenges - it's had a number of product issues, its stock price has fallen more than 25% since a year ago, and its $13 billion cholesterol drug Lipitor will go off patent in 2010, leaving an unprecedented void.
"Our leadership has a clear strategic plan," Kerins says. "We're implementing it. We're given trust to handle the reputation of this company in an environment no one has experienced. We need to change the dialogue because this industry is in turmoil. People trust us enough to take our drugs, yet there's an unbelievable disconnect between that and our credibility."
Handling the media
The overall pharma sector's negative reputation is clearly linked to and fueled by media coverage. The volume is staggering - Kerins' team of eight handles more than 3,000 stories a year in top-tier media alone - and for many reasons, the industry historically hasn't done a good job telling its side of the story.
Ann Moravick, EVP and director of global healthcare and brand advocacy at Ketchum, and a 20-year healthcare PR veteran, says over the past 10 to 15 years a combination of events created a volatile environment for pharma - including the Prescription Drug User Fee Act, the FDA expediting drug approval, direct-to-consumer advertising, skyrocketing healthcare costs, and a series of drug safety issues.
"Corporate misdeed is a good story," says Moravick, who does not work with Pfizer currently. "It's hard to push forward if the media continually hit companies in an aggressively negative way. Asserting a point of view and standing by it starts to resonate, particularly when there's a clear sense of direction and a consistent voice defending a reputation."
Ed Silverman has covered pharma for more than 12 years at The Star-Ledger (of New Jersey) and is editor of the Pharmalot blog, a top-tier outlet for Pfizer. He notes that the "evil twins of pricing and safety" have contributed to the industry's overall negative reputation.
"Pharma is highly regulated and companies are paranoid," he says. "[It's] a very closed mouth culture day to day - crisis or no crisis. Add a crisis and as little as possible [is said] publicly. Not every company has the same scandal, but collectively the concerns hit them all equally."
Certainly, the pharma business is complex, and it hasn't favored transparency, which is at the core of all the other issues. Pfizer realizes that change must start with increased collaboration and information sharing both internally and externally.
"Transparency is a major platform for the company," Kerins says. "It's a huge undertaking to be more open and transparent so folks can look at our company and say, 'we get it.' Transparency isn't just a word - we're trying to live by it daily. Believe me, it's hard."
Shreya Jani, a director of media relations at Pfizer who has been at the company since 2003, notices increased accountability at all levels. "There's a culture change happening that's magnified in communications," she says. "What we were doing before wasn't working. [Leadership is] asking us to find ways to explain our business model better, to engage, and to innovate."
Vanessa Aristide, director of corporate media relations, has been with Pfizer for nine years. "The market is changing, and you have to change with [it]," she says. "From a very senior level, Pfizer is focused on ensuring we're evolving in how we convey information and also that we're able to get the right information out in a timely manner."
Chris Loder, a director of media relations, explains that Pfizer is now intensely customer-focused, and the media is a customer of news and information. "In the past, sometimes corporate communications wouldn't listen to that customer," he says. "We're going to listen to the media, engage, listen again, and act on some of the things they say."
To better understand journalists' needs and gauge opinion of the company, Pfizer conducted an audit of 32 top-tier reporters last fall. Less than half perceived Pfizer as "transparent and straightforward about company news," and all wanted more timely access to scientists, executives, and media relations people. Though unpleased with the findings, Kerins wasn't surprised.
"The shotgun approach to communications is over," he says. "Our media engagement strategy is focused on knowing reporters [and] what they're looking for. If we do our jobs, coverage will be factual and balanced."
That media-relations shift has resonated with at least one journalist.
"The old regime was very closed," says an editor at a major news outlet who could not be named because company policy prohibits speaking on the record. "It took a while to get a response. The team now seems like they've been liberated more to be open with the media. You can totally tell the difference."
More than 300 reporters have contact sheets with a list of all media relations staff, their responsibilities, and multiple means of contact. Kerins says he never wants to see "Pfizer was unavailable for comment" in print. When a recent Bloomberg story ran stating Pfizer was unavailable, he ran it down.
"The reporter, who wasn't a healthcare beat reporter, called after hours and didn't leave a message," Kerins says. "I made sure Bloomberg knows how to reach us at any time."
However, Silverman says that while many of the media relations people he deals with at Pfizer have changed, he hasn't really noticed a change in communications tactics.
"I don't think they've had a chance to create a cohesive strategy," he adds. "There's chaos - the vice chairman left last year, there have been other management changes, and stock price continues to drop. If they've made changes, [they haven't] been effective."
Though surprised to hear this, Kerins says it encourages him to work harder.
"I understand Ed's frustration," he says. "History doesn't change overnight. It's about taking steps. We're probably about 10 steps up on a 40-step ladder."
Leading bloggers like Silverman are important to Pfizer. "A lot of editorial coverage comes from mainstream blogs," Kerins says. "They've opened a chance for dialogue. When they're done with stories, we're not done. We post additional information. We've already established good relationships with top-tier bloggers. We want to make them even better."
Moravick agrees that online engagement is critical for pharma companies. "The industry is reluctant to take the conversation online, but reputations are made there too," she says. "It seems that Pfizer has taken a leadership role in communicating online, and other companies could follow its lead."
Pfizer's commitment to transparency and collaboration extends to analysts, investors, and shareholders, and meetings were held this spring to explain corporate strategy.
Pfizer is also changing how it works with its PR agencies. May 1 was the first-ever "Agency Day," where 15 PR agencies spent a half-day together with Susman, global media relations, and US PR on-site at Pfizer learning about business and media engagement strategies.
"Our agencies have done an outstanding job," says Sally Beatty, a director of media relations. "We believe corporate needs to do a better job of working with them."
Mike Kuczkowski, Edelman EVP and global client relationship manager for Pfizer, has worked with the company for about four years.
"Communications literally has a seat at the table," he says. "That's new and signals a change. In the past, Pfizer had silos between functions and was somewhat bureaucratic. Silos are being broken down, and that's going to [benefit] Pfizer's external partners."
David Kyne, NY healthcare practice director at Hill & Knowlton, who has worked with Pfizer since the beginning of last year, agrees that the company has a renewed commitment to communications.
"They have such conviction and belief in what they're doing, it's infectious," Kyne says. "They have a clear plan, and agencies are going to be a big part of that success. It's extremely motivating that they shared the company's direction and our role in it."
Pfizer's future will unquestionably be different from its past. The loss of a $13 billion drug is simply unprecedented, and the company is certainly being closely watched. Whatever happens, the elevation of the communications function and the commitment of the team should benefit Pfizer.
"We're all here because we want to be here," Susman says. "We believe in this company, and it's a particularly interesting time. Healthcare is a front-page story every day. The pharma industry is central to the debate, and Pfizer is the leading company. We come in every day excited and fired up to do this. We're working across all divisions for one Pfizer. That means more collaboration, fewer silos, and collective thinking."
How Pfizer is changing communications
Thirty-two top-tier reporters were surveyed in August and Sept. 2007 to determine their needs, preferences, and views of Pfizer; audit planned annually
Journalist outreach engagement program
Pfizer comms teams invites journalists and bloggers in- house to educate them on certain topics. It also goes to newsrooms to meet them
Journalist education initiatives
The team produces and distributes educational materials covering various aspects of the pharma business, such as how to read medicine labels and the differences between side effects and adverse events
Fifteen US PR agencies met in-house at Pfizer to learn about the company's overall business strategy and journalist engagement strategy, and share insights to help agencies and Pfizer work as collaborative partners; ongoing meetings
Internal professional development training
Topics include enhanced clinical trial design, patient safety, R&D, emerging markets strategy, reading SEC filings, and global tax strategy
Alerts communications colleagues worldwide about stories and activities that are