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The Week That Was: Crises in Communications

The Week That Was: Crises in Communications

June 12, 2017 0 Comments

They say the news never sleeps, and this week, we believe it. Comey-fever gripped the nation, answering some of the nation’s burning questions while raising a few others (tapes, anyone?)… Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans started working to get the healthcare vote on track for a July 4th deadline—something we’ll be watching closely. The Week That Was editorial team has also been keeping an eye on a few other recent items:

  • FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb spoke with Bloomberg about how paving the way for generic approvals could lower drug prices;
  • STAT poked holes in value-based pricing; and
  • The American Medical Association conference discussed transparency for DTC advertising.

But that’s not all. So read on for a few more stories from The Week That Was.


Loxo Oncology made a splash at this year’s American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting in Chicago with data from their drug, larotrectinib. The drug demonstrated strong results in the treatment of 17 different types of cancer in both children and adults. After 12 months, 76% of patients’ tumors had shrunk, and for 79% of responsive patients, tumor growth stopped completely. Larotrectinib treats cancers caused by a mutation in the TRK gene, which is incredibly rare. To prescribe the treatment, doctors need the genetic makeup of a patient’s tumor, discovered through genetic testing. Only 12% of late-stage metastatic cancer patients get tested, however, because it can cost patients upwards of $5,000 out-of-pocket, since most insurers consider the test “experimental” and don’t cover the cost.


There’s no doubt that these results are incredible. Larotrectinib appears to be succeeding where other treatments have failed for patients of all ages– the youngest patient to take larotrectinib was just one month old, the oldest was 80. However, Loxo estimates that between 1,500 and 5,000 U.S. patients have the TRK mutation. For oncologists, that equates to about 1% of their patients. Saying that larotrectinib “could be a poster child for what the future looks like,” Loxo CEO Josh Bilenker is calling on insurers to cover genetic testing, which could ultimately help patients far beyond those with the TRK mutation. By highlighting the value of genetic testing, Loxo makes a strategic case for larotrectinib that paves the way for other mutation-specific treatments, benefitting patients, physicians, and other drug innovators. We liked this approach, and the market did too: Loxo’s stock leaped 40% the day after the company released its data.


Over the past couple of months, C-suites across the industry—from small biotechs to big pharma—have seen quite a bit of movement. While much of the activity can be attributed to regularly business ebb and flow, i.e., retirements, promotions, and, in some cases, the creation of new positions within an organization, a few companies have lost executives amidst a range of issues. And nothing draws more attention than a C-suite shake-up due to legal and ethical concerns.

While Martin Shkreli spoke and tweeted directly following his resignation from Turing Pharmaceuticals, the press has been left to fill in the details from two other recent C-suite overhauls: Valeant Pharmaceuticals and Alexion Pharmaceuticals. In both cases, management changes during ongoing investigations resulted in negative headlines, press speculation, and considerable stock fluctuation. When Valeant announced the resignation of its CEO as a “CEO succession plan” in a press release chock full of collegial quotes from board members and the outgoing CEO, media outlets immediately speculated that the board ousted the CEO. Similarly, when Alexion issued a release announcing an interim CEO and a new CFO, noting that those who previously held the positions were leaving to “pursue other opportunities,” press took the opportunity to highlight the company’s ongoing challenges, including investigations into its sales practices. In both situations, a “source” familiar with the matter provided context that helped substantiate reporter speculation.


In the post-Shkreli environment, the press, the public and even pharma employees are skeptical of corporations and can escalate issues easily via social media and the 24/7 news cycle. As a result, boards are acting more quickly than ever to shed executives that may damage a company’s image. Acting quickly, however, isn’t enough; internal and external communications must be equally prioritized to help the company avoid speculation and navigate to firmer ground with the public and staff. After all, your employees are your PR reps at the front lines of PTA meetings, little league games, and in line at grocery stores, day in and day out. For companies considering leadership transitions for any reason, we advise building a comprehensive plan with two-way communications (i.e., sharing information and receiving feedback) with key stakeholders—including employees—to prioritize transparency and refocus everyone on plans for the future.


Following consumer product companies’ lead, pharma marketers are getting wise to the fact that consumers are more reachable on digital platforms than on TV. But that’s easier said than done for drugmakers since targeting consumers due to suspected health conditions is, well, prohibited. Despite the regulatory challenges, Facebook is betting big on pharma, hosting its first invitation-only event for pharmaceutical marketers last week. As part of this strategy, the Facebook Health team is tweaking its advertising platform for pharmaceutical companies so they can comply with strict regulations around product promotions.


If Facebook is building it, consumers will likely come—and post about it. So moving to digital advertising seems more of a “when” than an “if” for pharma marketers. However, we counsel our clients regularly to ‘listen’ on online platforms, not just advertise. Social media channels are often where we find the first signs of an emerging issue. Any online marketing strategy has to be treated as a conversation with consumers; companies need to prepare their digital platforms to both message and respond, or risk be left out of the conversation altogether.

PS – We reminded you about mom, so we can’t forget dad. Next weekend is Father’s Day, so here’s a bonus list of gift ideas from Buzzfeed.

Until next time,

– The Reputation & Risk Management Practice @ inVentiv Health Communications

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