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The Opioid Crisis and Corporate Affairs’ role in repairing Big Pharma’s reputation

The US opioid crisis is the latest in a long series of incidents to hit the pharmaceutical sector. Yet again, the term “Big Pharma” is being bandied around in a negative context by regulators, politicians and consumers alike. Pharmaceutical companies have been accused of profiting from a crisis that last year claimed the lives of an estimated 42,000 Americans: for companies that strive to foster reputations as life savers, there is perhaps no stronger criticism.

In the case of Purdue, one of the companies most frequently mentioned in relation to the opioid crisis, some have speculatedthat the lawsuits levied against it may result in bankruptcy. A recent decision by the company to stop the marketing of opioids to doctors, leading to redundancies for half of its sales team, may be a case of too little too late.

As multiple companies find themselves embroiled in lawsuits levied against them by counties, cities, and states, it is imperative that the Corporate Affairs function addresses this crisis head-on, acts to re-balance the media narrative and mends damaged stakeholder relationships. What may at first appear to be a full-blown crisis could in fact present an opportunity for Corporate Affairs professionals to take their rightful positions as “connecting leaders”:  vital conduits of information and intelligence between the external world and the Executive.

Within the pharmaceutical sector, successful Corporate Affairs professionals tend to emulate – amongst other things – the following qualities:

  • Understanding and accurately assessing changing external dynamics and communicating these back to internal stakeholders;
  • Truly owning and representing the external stakeholder view within their businesses;
  • Ensuring underlying negative prejudices held against Big Pharma are balanced in the media with the important, society-benefitting work that underpins the corporate values and strategies of the sector’s key players

It is through a complete understanding of complex, fast moving issues outside of the business that Corporate Affairs can effectively embody stakeholder concerns internally and become the driving force behind commercial and cultural change.

Applying the above to the current situation being faced by opioid manufacturers in the US, how can pharma Corporate Affairs professionals react best to the situation? Given how developed the narrative has become in the media, crisis prevention is no longer an option, though the importance for Corporate Affairs to be equipped with the stakeholder intelligence it needs to feed back to the wider business cannot be understated.

Through a holistic, pan-stakeholder view, Corporate Affairs can shape and target messaging pushed out by the Communications function that will go some way to rebalancing the narrative and repairing stakeholder relationships.

End-consumer relationships may benefit from reassurance around the safety and efficacy of medicines: after extensive coverage around the potential dangers of opioids, reminders of their legitimate, necessary uses – for those in palliative care for example – may help to repair reputations of medicines that have been vilified by the media. Following the involvement of regulators and legislators, Corporate Affairs can take the current situation as an opportunity to remind these groups of the positive role Big Pharma plays within society. This will go some way to safeguarding these companies’ licenses to operate, as well as mitigating some of the negativity derived from politicians scoring cheap points with the public.

Some pharma companies have also been accused of profiteering from the crisis by either, selling the opioid as well as the drugs to treat addiction to the opioids, or pricing the opioid addiction treatment drugs excessively high. As the Corporate Affairs function has a holistic view of all the company’s activities, they are perfectly placed to direct corporate strategy. If the business is selling both opioid and anti-opioid drugs, then it is imperative that the Corporate Affairs leader ensures that the company’s messaging is not open to claims of hypocrisy, by handling its treatment campaign carefully.

In previous research, we found that drug pricing was an increasingly important issue in the pharmaceutical industry, while our analysis of the recent corporate response to the tax reform has shown how companies can gain strong reputational from societally-beneficial initiatives, instead of a purely profit-first strategy. The Corporate Affairs leader can use their knowledge of the internal commercial requirements, combined with the concerns and expectations of external stakeholders, to advise the executive board on which approach to the crisis fits best with their current products, strategy and goals. As with the Tax Reform, there is certainly an opportunity for a company to gain positive coverage with a low-price initiative. If one company does break rank and push this angle, the others can expect negativity around their own pricing to be magnified, so it is important that a potential response is planned in advance to avoid a reactive panic.

The old adage that within every crisis lies an opportunity is in part based on an inaccurate anecdote speech by JF Kennedy in which he referenced the word for “crisis” in the Chinese language. Whilst the anecdote was in fact incorrect, the essence of what he said was true. In this crisis, the opportunity for Corporate Affairs is to take control of the situation and oversee the necessary steps to right wrongs. Through re-balancing the current media discourse by proactively communicating around the value the industry brings, Corporate Affairs can remind key stakeholder groups of Big Pharma’s raison d’être in society.

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