Public Relations: Managing Reputation - Pharmaceutical Executive


Public Relations: Managing Reputation
The best PR strategies can be about making the best out of a bad situation.

Pharmaceutical Executive

In a crisis, provide 24/7 messaging and spokespeople with authority Taking an example from outside pharma, few organizations have faced a graver crisis than the US Postal Service (USPS) in October 2001, just a few weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Letters containing anthrax were delivered through the mail to the US Senate in Washington and to media offices in New York and Florida, putting at risk not only 28,000 facilities, but the value proposition of the service itself—universal, safe, and secure mail. The postal service moved quickly on several fronts to adapt—processing mail around closed facilities, modifying operations to introduce irradiation and sanitization, and building a communications strategy to reach a range of stakeholders desperate for updates, including the media, business mailers, and 800,000 employees. A dedicated Web site kept the workforce informed, while USPS executives spoke to the public through network newscasts.

A year later, a survey of leading business mailers found that 80 percent perceived the USPS to be "open and accessible," and that its Web site was now seen as a valuable channel for postal news and information. Biohazard-detection systems had been placed in processing plants nationwide. Processes and procedures to protect employees had been reassessed and improved. Most significantly, the bottom line remained healthy.

The characteristics of the identified strategies—disclosure, visibility, analysis, and media accessibility—bring communications planning and execution to their centers. Disclosure of what went wrong, or what is going well, needs to be preceded by message development (how to describe the "wrong," and how to express what "right" will look like when it's achieved). Audiences have to be identified and targeted, using channels that reach them. Media accessibility has to build off outreach to reporters, broadcasters, and even bloggers who can influence opinions that matter. Analytical conclusions have to be delivered by credible spokespeople. When the communications are effective, both recovery and enhancement can be dramatic and sustainable.

Going Forward

Looking out on the horizon, it's easy to see that corporations in the United States and abroad will continue to face challenges regarding reputation management, enhancement, and recovery. But leaders can take heart from the paths being carved by peers who are doing the right things—transforming sales staffers into brand ambassadors, building message platforms that resonate with the right audiences in the right venues, and addressing the right subjects.

Reputations are fragile. But their importance mandate attention, planning and effective execution. It is hard work, but eminently doable. And the rewards are significant.


1 Companies must commit to transparency in their actions and decision-making, and accountability in their messaging.
2 Companies must show success in ways that resonate with stakeholders.
3 Companies must not be afraid to admit to errors or mistakes, and avoid covering them up at all costs.
4 Companies must recognize that leadership is the responsibility of an entire team, not one individual.
5 Companies must be accessible to all stakeholders, either through media outlets that will reach them or directly, through face-to-face meetings or interactive vehicles available to stakeholders on a 24/7 basis.

Deborah Bowker is chair of Burson-Marsteller's US corporate/financial practice. She can be reached at

Jeanann Morgan is managing director for Burson-Marsteller's healthcare practice. She can be reached at


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