Newsmaker: Adele Ambrose, CCO, Merck

Merck's CCO of three-plus years continues to answer the challenge posed by its merger with Schering-Plough and an ongoing focus on the company's reputation.

Merck's CCO of three-plus years continues to answer the challenge posed by its merger with Schering-Plough and  an ongoing focus on the company's reputation.

Adele Ambrose has quite a bit to say - about communications, a pharmaceutical company's mission, and corporate reputation.

Since joining Merck, now considered the world's second-largest pharma company, she has refocused the communications function to address its reputation, while informing stakeholders about the story it seeks to tell.

"We can't afford to rely on others to tell our story or to figure it out," she says.

Merck named Ambrose CCO in December 2007. Back then, the Whitehouse Station, NJ-based company was undergoing a slew of executive changes and opted to split the communications and public affairs functions.

A veteran of AT&T, Ambrose saw an opportunity to take a leadership role at Merck, in part because the challenges of the pharma industry, she says, seemed to mirror the transformation of the telecoms sector.

"I saw a fair number of parallels between AT&T and Merck in that they are iconic American companies," she recalls. "AT&T is so much better known among consumers than Merck, but, as you really talk to the people and look at the companies, they both have very rich, 100-year-old traditions."

The role also came with challenges. There's lingering sentiment over how Merck handled the withdrawal of its painkiller Vioxx, as well as ongoing investor dialogue about the viability of Merck's drug pipeline.

"One of the reasons I was brought in was to assess where we were and to look at what we might need to do differently," says Ambrose, who reports to Merck's general counsel Bruce Kuhlik.

At AT&T, where Ambrose worked for 20-plus years, she identified what she calls the three legs of communications - employees, customers, and shareholders. Once on staff at Merck, she began to adjust how the company addresses corporate issues, such as reputation, while also ensuring employees and shareholders are looped in to the news they need.

The $41 billion merger between Merck and Schering-Plough in 2009 presented another opportunity to reshape the way Merck communicates with its stakeholders.

"Adele was a champion of the notion of a combined company that brought the best of both companies together," says Kenneth Frazier, president and CEO of Merck. "When you're dealing with different people who have different experiences and different cultures, communication is the thing that helps people come to a unified point of view on what it is that this new company can do for employees, for customers, for humanity."

On November 4, 2009, known as "Day One" internally because it was the day the merger closed, the communications team launched an employee portal that sought to integrate the Merck and Schering-Plough operations.

"That's one of our big, big priorities, in addition to integrated communications to all audiences," says Ambrose. "In terms of the priorities, employees are right up there because of the key role they're going to play in making sure the merger is a success."

Larger team, broader story

The merger, which makes Merck number two in global pharmaceutical sales, provided the company a new pipeline that includes animal health and consumer health divisions.

"If you look at our product portfolio and our pipeline, it got more diverse," says Ambrose.

The merger also doubled the size of the global communications team, which now includes 80 employees who have responsibility for product and corporate media relations, internal and external communications, and financial communications.

"We reshaped and repositioned the organization, trying to make sure we have the right amount of resources lined up against growth opportunities, such as emerging markets and internal communications," says Ambrose.

While communications in the first year of joint operations focused on ensuring a successful integration through a global advertising buy and ongoing employee engagement, this year tests public opinion as Merck prepares to launch a "signature corporate responsibility" initiative and to broaden the telling of its corporate story.

"You must accept that the challenges you've had in the past, in many ways, will always be with you," says Ambrose, discussing Vioxx. "It just becomes part of your story, but you must keep refreshing that story with who you are now and what you've done."

So, what does Merck's "now" include?

The CSR initiative will be tied to Merck's role in global health. The company is also preparing to relaunch the employee portal to include online community-building capabilities similar to Facebook profiles. In addition, there are plans to address the company's critics - an effort Ambrose says she spearheaded - and move forward on external-facing corporate social media programs.

"One change in the way we're managing communications and our reputation is this notion of not expecting people to know your story if you're not telling your own story," she explains. "You really need to look at every possible touchpoint the company has and tell a consistent story about who you are and what you stand for."

Former CEO Dick Clark's decision in 2009 to hire Michael Rosenblatt as chief medical officer was instrumental in helping establish an external voice for the company. Ambrose says her team built a program around Rosenblatt, including introducing him to key healthcare media outlets.

"That's a structural change," she says, "but we've definitely recognized that in the changing environment, it's really important to be out there."

Ambrose is also developing a program for Frazier, a long-time Merck executive who was named CEO in November 2010. He is the second of the company's CEOs, along with the late John Horan, to rise through communications.

"She doesn't pull punches," says Frazier. "That's a really important trait for a senior communications person to have because she has to operate in the senior counsels of the company, with the most powerful executives who sometimes are not interested in hearing less than flattering portrayals of their performance and characteristics."

John Zeglis, former chairman and CEO of AT&T Wireless, considered Ambrose a strategy partner when she served as the company's EVP of PR and investor communications, working with him to establish the telecom spinoff as a player in the wireless field.

"She was always there, one of the half-dozen key people at the strategy table," he says, noting her role in helping develop AT&T's breakthrough strategy to encourage texting among Americans through a sponsorship of American Idol.

As for Merck, the strategy has shifted under Ambrose's watch.

"If you go back even five years ago, stakeholders weren't pushing hard to learn more about the company behind the products," she says. "Now, around the world, there's much more interest in that."

Part of the strategy is aligning Merck prod- ucts with prevention and wellness - the company partnered with Weight Watchers last year for a pilot program to address obesity and introduced its "Be Well" tagline in 2009.

Gauging impact

Under Ambrose, the team is starting to look at how to measure the impact of communications on Merck's reputation, both with traditional stakeholders like customers, healthcare professionals, and government officials, and with other groups, including women with families.

The goal, says Ambrose, is to establish what drives reputation with healthcare providers and the public, while also identifying the differences in what drives reputation in global markets.

"She has had a profound impact on the company," says Frazier, "and how well it represents its point of view to the outside world and how well we understand the outside world's expectations of Merck."

Product pipeline


Anacetrapib, the experimental cholesterol drug, showed promise to investors earlier this year, with results of its larger outcomes clinical trial expected in 2015

Hepatitis C

The company has boceprevir, which it acquired through its merger with Schering-Plough, in development. The drug received fast-track status from the Food & Drug Administration in January

Expiring patent


Singulair, the allergy and asthma drug, is expected to lose patent exclusivity in the US in 2012. In 2010, the blockbuster drug's sales rose 7% to $1.3 billion

December 2007-present

Merck, SVP and CCO

September 2001-April 2005

AT&T Wireless, EVP of PR and investor communications

1984-September 2001

AT&T, various positions

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