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The Week That Was: Crises in Healthcare Communications

The Week That Was: Crises in Healthcare Communications

February 29, 2016 0 Comments


Have you ever been bored on a weekend and asked yourself, “I know, why don’t I go impersonate an animal rights activist on behalf of my employer who trains large mammals in captivity… and then… why don’t I infiltrate the ranks of this activist organization to learn their strategies?” No…? No, you’ve never had that thought…? Okay, you pass, please keep reading.

On Thursday, SeaWorld admitted that its employees posed as animal rights activists in an attempt to spy on protestors from PETA, acknowledging accusations of ‘espionage’ that the animal rights group had alleged for a year. SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby told analysts on an earnings call last Thursday that the company’s board has “directed management to end the practice in which certain employees pose as animal rights activists” (seriously, we can’t make this stuff up). The admission comes after years of mounting troubles that have plagued SeaWorld Entertainment following the release of the documentary “Blackfish” in 2013 (the film linked the mistreatment of orca whales in the theme-park’s shows to the death and injury of SeaWorld trainers). In an effort to redeem its image and theme-park sales, SeaWorld has instituted a series of substantive commitments, including phasing out its trademark Shamu shows and banning killer whale breeding in captivity. Yet, simultaneous with these changes, its employees were seemingly working to infiltrate PETA.

Our Take: We’re not going to lie, when your Board feels compelled to make an official statement that it does not encourage employees to surreptitiously pretend to be animal rights activists, that is NOT a good sign. It’s a worse sign when analysts feel compelled to ask about these incidents during an earnings call. While CEO Manby is working desperately to turn around the struggling image and low ticket sales at SeaWorld, such blunders are embarrassing blemishes even if they are residue from a previous management team. Efforts to “infiltrate the adversary” are sometimes joked about in the hallways of embattled companies everywhere, but a joke is exactly how they should be treated. No executive should let a day pass when an employee is endorsed for representing anything other than your organization (unless you work for the clandestine service, in which case, we give you a pass).



Have you noticed a hospital or a drug commercial during your favorite programming or news magazine of late? (We admit it, we’re part of a non-geriatric audience glued to 60 Minutes). The uptick is not a blip. In fact, the New York Times reported this weekend that the health care industry spent $14 billion on advertising in 2014, a 20 percent jump since 2011. According to Kantar Media, TV advertising has risen 55 percent for hospitals and 30 percent for prescription medicines. The increase in advertising has included some “interestingly” placed ads during the Super Bowl and presidential debates, raising eyebrows about whether such prominently placed, expensive ads, were a wise move in a period when drug pricing and marketing is under scrutiny. Pointedly, The Times asked whether hospital ads that promise empathic care and miracle stories are misleading. Unlike drug DTC marketing which is regulated to include ‘fair balance,’ the Times points out hospital ads are not regulated and could confuse consumers about the benefits their institutions can achieve.

Our Take: As healthcare continues to be a big business, so too will its marketing. This is particularly true for health systems (aka hospitals) who are trying to attract more patients for well care. For pharmaceutical executives, this is a period when internal integration is imperative. Any brand manager thinking about running a big DTC ad buy should be working in concert with corporate communications counselors to understand the implications for how a commercial could be perceived within the environment it runs. Executives should also beware of scatter ‘buys’ where your ad could end up on a channel or time slot which you may not anticipate nor desire.



Last week, Stephen Ubl, the new head of the industry’s lobbying organization PhRMA told The New York Times that he wants his administration to usher “pragmatic, pro-consumer policies that ensure access [to medicines] and address holistically some of the issues being raised around health care costs.” That sounds good to us. Part of Ubl’s leadership of PhRMA will certainly focus on putting into context the amount of healthcare spend that goes toward drugs versus other forms of care – and argue that medicines are a first step in preventing costly corrective procedures and hospitalizations. Ubl may have also tipped his hat that PhRMA is going to increase public pressure on payers. “Too many patients” according to Mr. Ubl, have difficulty gaining access to the drugs they need because of high out-of-pocket costs, “prior authorization” requirements and other restrictions imposed by health plans.

Our Take: As the Head of PhRMA, Ubl is taking a fight to the payers that no single member can do… Namely, he’s hinting at the fact that many patients who pay their insurance premiums are being denied access to “expensive” medicines as part of their insurers’ extensive prior authorization processes. Whether this is part of the game plan for PhRMA’s communications efforts only time will tell, but reminding consumers that they deserve access to the medicines they pay for in their premiums seems like a solid argument for PhRMA to wade into a populist debate – especially as last week’s New England Journal of Medicine ran an oped advocating for policy changes that can decrease drug costs.

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