New Strategy Makes Entire Sales Force a National PR Machine

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NEW YORK ( -- Troubled by the worsening reputation of drug companies that is ranked just above tobacco and oil manufacturers, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline is out to win over a skeptical public -- by turning its entire sales force into a PR machine.
Michael Pucci, GlaxoSmithKline's vice president for external advocacy, has tasked his sales force with speaking on behalf of GSK and the industry about the affordability of prescription medication and how today’s medicines fund the next generation of blockbuster drugs.

Unprecedented mission
In an unprecedented mission, the $35.4 billion pharmaceutical giant has quietly anointed its 8,000 U.S. sales representatives as “public relations ambassadors” to lift its image and that of the beleaguered industry with grassroots PR. The initiative, dubbed the ”Value of Medicine,” was created by Michael Pucci, GSK’s VP-external advocacy, to respond to overwhelming criticism and negative perception of the pharmaceutical industry.

“What we’re leveraging here is asking our employees to talk to people, even if they just start with their family members,” he said.

Deciding to eschew a traditional corporate branding campaign, Mr. Pucci instead has unofficially “deputized” his sales force to speak on behalf of GSK and the industry about the affordability of prescription medication; how today’s medicines fund the next generation of blockbuster drugs; access to state and federal programs that offset drug prices; and even some common misconceptions about direct-to-consumer advertising.

Every county
Armed with salient talking points and answers to tough questions, the sales force is out speaking to Rotarians, Elks, Lions Club members, senior-citizen groups, weekly newspapers, schools and every community group they can think of. And Mr. Pucci said GSK has enough sales reps to cover every county in every state in the country.

“Reputation matters,” Mr. Pucci said. “In this industry, it’s so important. We have to tell that story of how we’re investing for the future.”

He said the majority of questions the reps receive revolve around pricing, and he has given them what he calls a “learning system” that takes 50 minutes to master and will enable the rep to satisfy queries about the company and the industry. GSK reps made 15,000 presentations last year, Mr. Pucci said, reaching 1.8 million people.

The seeds of the effort were sown when Mr. Pucci two years ago viewed a Harris Interactive poll on the perception of various industries. Pharmaceutical companies received a 44% favorable rating in 2004, a big plunge from 79% in 1997, putting drug makers in the uncomfortable company of tobacco and oil titans. So he went to GSK Vice Chairman Bob Ingram and said, “We have to play offense here. We have to tell our story.”

Grassroots touchpoints
Ironically, in the 2005 Harris poll, pharma jumped back up 17 points based on what Harris said were more moderate price increases and effective advertising to promote the industry. But Mr. Pucci insists that the best PR is less about traditional advertising and more about touchpoints at the grassroots level.

“A book called ‘The Influentials’ cited data that people are more trusting of information conveyed by family members and regular rank-and-file employees than from corporate figures and more formal channels,” he said.

The message is getting around -- at least within the drug industry. “We have encouraged our other companies to undertake similar programs,” said Ken Johnson, VP-communications for the industry’s lobby group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. “It’s not enough for our sales people to be marketers, they need to be ambassadors of the industry as well. We have a great industry; we shouldn’t be ashamed of defending it.”

Industry debate
But while rivals have done corporate branding PR at a more understated level, they don’t appear to be too eager to join in. “It’s ambitious, and I give Glaxo a lot of credit for doing it,” said the chief marketing officer for a top 10 drug maker. “But I’m not sure I want 8,000 people on the ground given that level of responsibility to basically speak for a company and an industry. With that many, the odds say there’s going to be a percentage of them -- however small -- that will make a mistake, or stray from the script, or whatever.”

Then there are those who question the script. “I understand pharma does feel they’ve been picked on, but I’m not sure this is the best way to go about changing that image,” said Dr. Donna Sweet, chair of the Board of Regents for the American College of Physicians, which is on record as opposing direct-to-consumer advertising. “It’s not a bad idea if these people are acting as good citizens and telling the truth and not trying to sway people. But I have a hard time believing they’re going to be completely fair and honest in all situations.”

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