When David Weiskopf joined Chiron in March 2005, the biotech company was in a crisis.
Six months earlier, it had announced the grim news that production problems at a UK facility in Liverpool had left officials unable to provide roughly half of the US flu vaccine supplies.
"[My role] was essentially to come in and build a first-class communications team, work with senior management on the Fluvirin flu vaccine challenge, and to develop a strategy to relaunch our corporate brand image," says Weiskopf.
A year later, Chiron has been able to shift the discussion away from whether it would be able to supply Fluvirin and to its other endeavors in the vaccine business.
"We feel that we've moved past the immediate challenge to focus on the company's ability to be a reliable annual supplier of the flu vaccine and to develop next generation flu cell culture technology to deal with challenges like avian flu," Weiskopf says.
With its 2004 manufacturing problems behind it, share prices in the fourth quarter of 2005 exceeded analyst expectations, in part because of strong Fluvirin sales. Chiron is also preparing for a possible acquisition by pharma giant Novartis, which has agreed to buy out the company, but still needs shareholder approval.
While the potential acquisition takes up a lot of his effort, Weiskopf and his team are certainly keeping their eyes on current business objectives.
A broader image campaign, for instance, is focused on repositioning the company as one that "protects people through innovative science in three critical healthcare sectors: pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and blood safety/testing," Weiskopf notes.
But he adds that Chiron's external reputation has been just one priority over the past year. "I've tried to focus not just on the media or brand image... but also morale," he says.
Part of that, he adds, is to stress that PR should drive business success, not vice versa.
John Onoda, a senior consultant at Fleishman-Hillard who worked with Weiskopf earlier in his career, notes how the latter was thrown into the fire - literally - during his first month when a suspicious fire broke out at Chiron's Emeryville, CA, headquarters.
"He's very centered. He won't get overly excited," Onoda says, stressing how Weiskopf handled the crisis with aplomb.
Weiskopf's public affairs career began at Levi Strauss, which is run by what Onoda calls a "famously introverted" family. At the time, the company was facing questions about its labor and manufacturing processes, as well as intellectual property and counterfeit issues.
"David was there shortly after the [public affairs] function was created," Onoda says. "Dealing with the external world had not been done before."
Weiskopf spent his earlier career in law and government, which might have prepared him for the challenges biotech faces today.
"You've got the regulatory environment... intersecting with communications," says Dave Samson, now VP of public affairs at Chevron, who worked with Weiskopf at Levi Strauss. Weiskopf likes to say that his career has spanned "from bills to pills" and "from jeans to genes."
"I'm someone who's motivated by the challenge," he adds.
He has also spent six years in the agency world, first at Weber Shandwick, where he was a team leader on Hewlett-Packard, and then at Ketchum, where he led the Genentech business.
It was that account that drew him to biotech. "There's an additional factor in working in the life sciences," he says. "You see an improvement in a patient's quality of life."
"He has incredible integrity and great judgment," Samson says of Weiskopf. "In our profession, that's what we really bring to the table."
David Weiskopf 2005-present
Chiron, VP of corporate communications
2002-2004 Ketchum, SVP
1999-2002 Weber Shandwick, VP 1994-1998 Levi Strauss, director of public affairs