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The Week That Was: Crises in Communications

The Week That Was: Crises in Communications

April 10, 2017 0 Comments

Domestic issues decidedly took a back seat to international affairs last week, as evidenced by a shift in media coverage. A few health news items did rise to the fore: The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) became the first medical association to oppose the Right-to-Try movement, while the trade association PhRMA tried to raise questions about why payers are not passing rebate savings on to Americans. And Pepsi became the latest global brand to bungle its response to social media criticism.


Last week, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) became the first major medical group to oppose Right-to-Try laws (RTT). Simultaneously, ASCO reinforced its support for strengthening the FDA’s Expanded Access Program to make it easier for patients to navigate and gain access to experimental medicines. ASCO raised the most common criticisms of the RTT laws: they do not remove the major barriers to access, which tend to be related to drug supply, and that they may diminish the safety of patients. RTT laws have now passed in 33 states and there’s growing momentum behind federal legislation that would nearly eliminate the FDA’s role in approving and overseeing terminal patients’ access to investigational medicines.


An organization of 42,000+ healthcare professionals opposing Right-to-Try is the most meaningful disapproval to-date, and will provide a counterbalance to media coverage and Congressional hearings moving forward. That ASCO felt the need to weigh in also shows the momentum behind the RTT movement, and the increasing likelihood of a legislative debate this fall. We advise clients—particularly those in rare disease categories—to think carefully about how and when to create expanded access policies, lest their company become a target by the increasingly vocal and well-organized RTT advocates.


In a story that “united the internet,” Pepsi took significant heat for posting an ad to YouTube that featured model meets reality TV personality Kendall Jenner leaving a glamorous photoshoot to join a protest march, ultimately bringing police and protestors together via a can of soda. The ad quickly caught the attention of real activists who criticized Pepsi for trivializing the significance of protests for the benefit of its brand. Within a day, Pepsi apologized for the ad on Twitter, noting that they “missed the mark” in their attempt to project a message of global unity and pledging to pull the ad and stop the creative campaign. Pepsi also issued a specific apology to Jenner—a move that only added fuel to the fire, with social media and mainstream outlets saying that the company’s apology should have been directed to protestors. Jenner hasn’t issued a statement or responded to requests for comment, but did pull posts about the ad from her Instagram account.


We’ve seen a number of big brands recently miss the mark with their responses to public criticism (ahem, United Airlines). Company ads must resonate with diverse audiences and take the appropriate tone. We bet Pepsi could’ve avoided the controversy if it had thoroughly tested the ad with a broad cross-section of consumer groups prior to launch. This approach applies in crisis responses, too. While you may not be able to test messages as extensively as you can for a proactive campaign, quickly loop in trusted external advisors for a sound check and pressure-test. It can help you determine if your response will mitigate concerns or draw more criticism.


Emboldened new research from the Berkeley Research Group and Amundsen Consulting, the industry trade group PhRMA launched a campaign, “Share the Savings,” to raise awareness of the lack of rebate “pass-through” for commercially insured patients. Recent studies show that more than a third of the list price for brand medicines is directed to payers through rebate payments made by pharmaceutical companies. Additionally, cost sharing for nearly one in five brand prescriptions is calculated as a percentage of the full list price—not the discounted price that insurers and PBMs actually pay—effectively overcharging patients. PhRMA CEO Stephen Ubl commented, “We need to ensure patients receive more of the benefit of price negotiations between biopharmaceutical companies and payers,” adding, “Providing access to discounted prices at the point-of-sale could dramatically lower patients’ out-of-pocket costs.” The campaign will run across print, radio, digital and social channels in Washington, DC, and select states throughout the year.


The industry is clearly concerned about the specter of drug pricing policies. Investing in “Share the Savings,” illustrates the seriousness of the PR problems facing pharmacos. When it comes to rebates, the industry argument seems to be gaining traction, as media coverage is increasingly focusing on the role of payers in out-of-pocket costs. Even the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER), long considered a staunch pharma detractor, has started to consider the rebates and discount in overall drug costs, spending significant time discussing the role of payers and PBMs in driving up drug prices in its recent arthritis review public meeting. But we warn against pharma pointing the finger too boldly at payers because our proprietary research shows patients, providers, and policymakers don’t respond well to the blame game. So, what does resonate? Pharmacos and payers working together to arrive at a “fair price” for new medicines, as illustrated by the recent Dupixent approval, which included a collaboration from Regeneron and Express Scripts.

We’re going to enjoy the last remaining hours of this lovely day now that spring seems to finally have broken through on the dreary East Coast. But have no fear; our team will be back in action tomorrow, watching for the latest trends impacting life sciences companies.

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