Williams points to the banking and financial industries, which are firmly typecast by politicians as the collective Darth Vader of our economic woes. Make no mistake, some of that negative reputation is deserved. But assuming wiser heads have begun to prevail in those industries, how does one restore a positive standing in the public view?
Crisis communicators embrace such a challenge, creating strong messages and intricate strategies to build new relationships with stakeholders and, hopefully, start to influence perceptions. That’s important work. But I contend that something else needs to happen first: a change in behavior.
Consider another industry that often shares (right or wrong) the scum-and-villainy descriptor—the pharmaceutical industry. For decades, drug companies have been accused of doing shifty things. A decade ago, the industry adopted a voluntary code of conduct that, along with tighter regulatory and reporting rules, aimed to stop questionable activities and inappropriate relationships.
Yet the negative perceptions remain. Why? Some of it is residual. Some of it is the complexity of the industry’s messages. Some of it, sadly, is a failure to walk the talk, or being patient enough to let a change in behavior bear fruit.
So what's to be done? Let’s take a look at the industry’s leading company, Pfizer Inc. (Full disclosure: I worked for Pfizer and legacy companies for nearly 25 years.)
In 2009, the pharmaceutical giant was hit with what was then the biggest criminal fine in U.S. history—a stunning $2.3 billion, levied against subsidiary Pharmacia & Upjohn, for illegal marketing practices. (As of July of this year, that dubious honor is held by GlaxoSmithKline, with a $3 billion fine.) “It’s another step in the administration’s ongoing effort to prosecute any individual or organization that tries to rip off health care consumers and the federal government,” said Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Pfizer took this smackdown to heart. Among its actions in the wake of the settlement was a stepped-up compliance effort affecting every level of the organization and overseen by a corporate compliance officer. Training, auditing, communication and enforcement are elements of the program. The company states that “the first and foremost responsibility of each employee around the world at Pfizer is to abide by the company's policies on business conduct. Each employee must comply not only with the letter of these policies, but also with their spirit.”
Fast-forward to last week, when Pfizer was fined again, this time over allegations that its foreign subsidiaries were involved in bribery. While this levy, $60 million, pales in comparison to the 2009 hit, it’s another black eye for the company.
Or is it?
I noticed a different tone in the announcement this time. According to news accounts, the fine was reduced and criminal charges waived because Pfizer itself alerted authorities to the infractions. In fact, the company discovered and reported them back in 2004, conducting its own investigation, keeping authorities informed and cooperating fully with investigators from the Securities & Exchange Commission and the Justice Department.
Pfizer could have tried to hide the misdoings. It could have played dumb and left it to regulators to discover (or fail to discover) the infractions. But Pfizer did the right thing. It found some foreign subsidiaries doing wrong, reported it and accepted the consequences.
True, this one instance won’t change the anti-pharma mindset. The industry has much work to do, and much soul-searching, to make that happen. But it’s a step in the right direction, one that I hope Pfizer continues and that its peers emulate.
There isn’t a message point in the world that can accomplish more than the simple act of doing the right thing.