Interview: Mike Pucci

Vice president, external advocacy, GlaxoSmithKline

Vice president, external advocacy, GlaxoSmithKline

In his current role as VP of external advocacy for GlaxoSmithKline, Mike Pucci is responsible for edifying and empowering all manners of stakeholders to talk about GSK, the pharmaceutical industry, and general healthcare issues within their communities. He spends much of his time on the road, and the rest working on training GSK's employees. He has spent over 20 years at the company, most of which were in sales and sales training. Pucci took time out from a demanding travel schedule to discuss his role, the industry collaboration on reputation issues, and how the online environment has affected his work.

Q: How did you become VP of external advocacy?
The role came out of an industry crisis of reputation. I went to the president of the company and submitted a job proposal. I saw we needed to become more proactive in communicating to the public about the value of medicine and the long-term beneficial effects of our work. The role basically came out of an observation of the need to get out there and do things a little bit different than we did; the need to be more proactive with our messages.

Q: Do you spend most of your time speaking to stakeholders directly, or do you go through various media conduits?
If you look at last year's activity, half of my time is spent speaking externally to physician groups, pharmacy groups, employers, rotary clubs, employee benefit managers, and anyone who is influential or is concerned about healthcare delivery or healthcare financing. The other half of my job is to train and develop our sales force to be able to answer the questions they're facing about the industry and to be able to interact with their friends, family, neighbors, and anyone who starts talking about the price of medicine or the cost of healthcare. We have about 10,000 commercial employees nationwide. These are people who are excellent at communications and winning others over. We're just tapping into and leveraging the skill set they have and giving them the answers to the questions that are out there in the public, such as why medicines cost what they do and how our industry and, specifically, our company cares about the issues about access and affordability, as well as the programs for people who can't afford medicine.

Q: How have you felt the industry, as a whole, has taken this message to stakeholders?
I've spent the better part of the past year and a half, speaking at internal conferences, where I encourage other companies to pick up this strategy. We have had some extraordinary success in a very short time getting companies to join us. As a result of our work, we've seen changes in how direct-to-consumer advertising is done. All of these things have come about over the past 24 to 36 months, after we became concerned about raising the flag that all of our behaviors matter and that we all have to monitor our actions as they pertain to reputation.

Q: How do you balance working with other companies on reputation issues with the obvious competitive nature of the business?
Certainly, we're a very competitive industry. But, with regards to reputation, it's a point of common interest. We're a highly regulated industry. Medicines all have risks and side effects associated with them. As the government becomes more and more involved in paying for prescription medicines, like it is with Medicare Part B, there will always be an increasing level of scrutiny on cost and on everything in the industry. There is a common interest in maintaining vigilance in how we're perceived as an industry.

Q: When you're training employees, are you just looking for them to be able to answer questions that arise, or do you want them to be more proactive in pitching the messages?
Seventy percent of the articles written about the industry were negative in 2004. Correspondingly, our industry reputation was an abysmal 44% positive in the public's mindset during that time, according to a Harris Interactive audit. This has an impact on any internal employee morale. Anything they read about the industry certainly raises questions. The most important thing we've done in educating employees around these issues is that we've improved employee morale. They feel they now have the other side of the story, as well as more of the facts and figures than they would have got from a sound byte in the media. Employees want to be able to respond; they want to engage. By sitting down and training groups and individuals, we're able to d allow them to engage, in a limited way, in a discussion that happens almost on a daily basis.

Q: Has the advent of online communications affected how you are able to deliver your message?
It sure has. I was invited to speak to the editorial board at WebMD. At the end of that discussion, a light bulb went off [where I realized] that there are all of these patient assistance programs out there, but there's no way to access them all. We said, "Why don't we create a website on WebMD where all of these programs can be accessed?" I asked the editors, "When someone calls or writes in to one of the 156 different websites they've got moderated by different physicians and nurses, what do you do when someone writes in and says they can't afford their medicines?" They shrugged their shoulders. I said, let's help them. Within a week, they provided a website that did just that. WebMD has about 20 million visitors a month. We took it one step further and said, why don't we provide a site where people can interact with us at the Center for Plain Talk about Prescription Medicine. Boy, did we hear from the public. We had 300,000 people visit the site in the first four or five months that we set it up. That Web site is now in its third generation of redesign, and we've updated and changed the information, based on current issues. The story is now also being told through the blogosphere. Several other people have picked up my comments, and, then, I'm being quoted all over the Internet.

Q: How much of what you do intersects with the traditional marcomms department?
I do have a unique crossover role. I also work in the advocacy area in federal government affairs. The link into the communications group is extremely strong. We are aligned with the corporate messaging around the principal things we want to talk about. The language we're using is universal to this industry. We're talking about how today's miracle drugs are paying for the next generation of innovation drugs that will better treat cancer and Alzheimer's. It takes on average 15 years and $800 million to develop a medicine. There's a tremendous value story that needs to be told. The other message to get out there is that we care; we're human. The challenge that faces all large corporations today, not just in the pharmaceutical industry, is we have to become human to the public. One of the most effective ways to become human in the public is to have people in the local markets stand-up, identify themselves, and say, "Hey. I work for this company. Here's what we're doing to help people. Here are the research projects that are going on right now." The credibility of that is enormous. In today's environment, people are more likely to believe a person in the local community when they speak about the company than they are to believe something that comes out of the corporate headquarters. In the post-Enron world, we have to recognize that there's a lot of distrust today in what comes out of a corporation.


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