Drug marketers need crisis plans

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It's easy to dislike drug companies. They're a perennial target of insurance companies, politicians, consumer groups and more, and as such they must get tired of continual bashings in the press-enough sometimes to ignore the latest charge. But that's a crucial mistake.

Given the warp speed of the Web, marketers can't afford to take anything for granted. Within hours of The New York Times report March 8 that some people taking Sanofi-Aventis' insomnia drug Ambien were driving while still asleep and under its influence, the tales were spilling all over the Internet. Then a follow-up story March 14 outlined an even more bizarre side effect: people binge eating while still asleep, including one person who purportedly gained 100 pounds from unaware nocturnal noshing.

Google "Ambien and driving" and you get 1.95 million hits. A search of "Ambien and eating" turns up 1.27 million. That should wake up Sanofi, given that legions of consumers turn to the Web every day to research medications and are likely to stumble on these reports-if they haven't already read it in a newspaper, heard it from a friend, seen it on CNN or David Letterman.

Yet to date Sanofi has not undertaken a PR or advertising campaign in its own defense, opting to respond with terse statements such as the one admitting that "while sleepwalking may occur during treatment with Ambien, it may not necessarily be caused by it."

With $2.1 billion in sales and an overwhelming share of a booming category at stake, that's an inadequate response, to say the least. "It's almost a textbook example of how not to handle crisis communications," said Steve Cody, managing partner of Peppercom, New York. "It's not smart from a branding standpoint."

What is smart is a full-out communications plan-and Sanofi, along with other drug makers, ought to have them at the ready. After all, it's no surprise that they will eventually face a PR nightmare. There's no reason to be caught napping.
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