Fixing Pfizer's Rep: An Interview with Kathryn Metcalfe

Mar 18, 2009

Earlier this month, Pfizer announced that Kathryn Metcalfe would take on the position of vice president of corporate reputation and policy communications—locking up the final position of its new communications triumvirate.

Reporting to Chief Communications Officer Sally Susman (who, in turn, reports directly to CEO Jeffrey Kindler), Metcalfe faces the daunting task of repairing the reputation of a company that should be known as a provider of life saving medicine, but is more often than not considered another big business that devours its competitors and wades in cash.

With a resume that includes a laundry list of public relations agencies, as well as pharma companies such as Millennium and Novartis, Metcalfe is qualified for the challenge. Pharm Exec sat down with her to talk about her new job.

You work in an industry that helps people, but the public perception lately seems to skew negative. What are the challenges in fixing Pfizer and the pharma industry’s reputation?
Pharmaceutical reputation has diminished significantly. I remember working in this business when it was exciting and noble work. So it is very disappointing to see an industry that continues to do good work in advancing patient health be villanized publicly.

I think there are a lot of misunderstandings in the public about what percent of the overall healthcare cost pharmaceuticals represent. And I think in the past, industry and individual companies haven’t been as good at telling the story of the value that they bring, and the overall role that pharmaceuticals play in the nation’s health.

For example, most people still believe that the government develops the majority of the drugs that are on the market today. And when you talk to people about what would happen if pharmaceutical companies didn’t advance and support science, they really believe the government could do all of that on their own.

I don’t know if we’ve been as effective collectively at telling our story and creating the right narrative. And I think in some instances, the industry has been either too arrogant or unwilling to speak to adversaries—to our critics—and to use plain talk and very direct language in helping people understand the value of the pharmaceutical company. That’s something that Pfizer is very, very committed to changing.

One area that has been a point if contention is online media. A year ago, there was a blitzkrieg of anti-Chantix chatter on a number of blogs about how the drug causes depression. However, there was no response from Pfizer.
I absolutely believe that online channels and vehicles provide a very important opportunity for reputational activities and efforts. And, in fact, due to specific regulations around products and how you promote them, there may be different opportunities to talk from a reputational standpoint than there are about specific products, specific diseases, and where we make claims. So I certainly think that the online space will factor very prominently into our plans for how we manage reputation.

Also, as you look at who the trusted voices are out there, people want to hear from other people like them. And in that regard, our ability to leverage our scientists, our own employees, and not just senior executives in our reputational activities, will also be very critical.

How do you go about managing your reputation on a global level?
Global reputation is very different. In many countries, we are a beloved part of the societal fabric. In other countries, we have yet to build and form a reputation, and I’ll be working on doing that.

I also think reputation happens locally. So, while those of us in New York read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and probably the Washington Post, I’m originally from Idaho, and in Idaho you read the Idaho Statesman, and you feel and think very differently about major corporations. What our reputation looks like in different communities across the United States varies greatly. So our ability to create the reputation that we want in the right communities is also critical.

In the last couple years, pharma companies have moved away from having a PR agency as the first line of defense for communications. Do you see this as a growing trend?
I think agencies have created other offerings over the years, and are playing more of a strategic counselor role, advising companies on specific product or brand issues. I think that’s still really the bread and butter for the PR agencies.

There have been cuts in the communications function at many pharmaceutical companies within the last two years, and communications along with any other function has had to critically examine what roles really add value and make sense and contribute to driving the business.

Pfizer has been very open recently about the need for transparency, even going so far as to admit that in the past calls from reporters would not be returned until the second call.
When you look at transparency with any particular audience, I think [Pfizer has] made good strides, for example, in the clinical trials area, where we were the first company to include disclosure around clinical trial investigators. Pfizer’s done a great job in peeling back the veil of secrecy and connecting with key audiences.

Is it safe to say that you’re being tasked with making the public believe in this as much as the press?
Absolutely. I’m looking across the board from patients, from physicians, from customers, to policymakers, to our critics, and I think it’s important that we engage with our critics and have open, honest, and transparent discussion, debate, and dialogue. In my experience, that always leads to a better product, and while you may not always agree, the ability to say, “I understand where you’re coming” from is really important.

Can you talk about the PR strategy you are working on?
Exactly what that plan is right now [is a work in progress], but I know it needs to be radically different than what’s been done.

What the industry’s done in the past has not been effective, and I don’t think I want to do anything that is considered traditional. I want to focus on novel, reputational activities that are going to move the needle. My basic premise here is that the vast majority of what’s been done in industry to date—while it may have been successful in certain pockets—hasn’t really moved the needle to the degree that the current environment mandates.

Is there anything that’s been done in the past that could be adapted for today’s industry?
I think it’s really hard for anyone working in this space to claim victory in the past when you look at our reputational data and we fall one step above Big Tobacco in some cases, or oil companies.

Industry’s response to “Let’s reform healthcare” was to run their own version of the “Harry and Louise” ads, basically saying we don’t want any government-run solutions.

I think what you’re seeing this time around is Pfizer and Jeff Kindler embracing healthcare reform, and saying you’re not going to fix the economy unless you fix healthcare. Reputation has to include listening to what our constituents want and need, and creating solutions that are win-win solutions. I don’t think a successful campaign can be an “us versus them” discussion, because I think this is really a “we” discussion.