Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Spokesperson Goes Off Track

Remember to Keep an Ear to the Rail
Brands have a number of options when it comes to gaining endorsements. Among them are experts, celebrities and people with actual success stories. In the case of the pharmaceutical industry, the last example would be happy, grateful patients. Patient spokespersons have proven to be effective in communicating key messages in an authentic fashion.

But not always. In "A Celebrity Patient's Backing Turns Sour for Drug Company," by Shirley S. Wang in The Wall Street Journal, we learn of Andy Behrman and his relationship with Bristol-Myers Squibb. Mr. Behrman is a person of some renown -- he chronicled his life with bipolar disorder in Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania, published in 2002. It was reported that BMS paid him $400,000 in 2004 and 2005 to talk about the benefits of their blockbuster drug, Abilify(R). Mr. Behrman appeared in videos, at BMS events and in numerous media interviews. He would say how Abilify was life-changing and had no side effects.

Now we hear from Mr. Behrman -- after his non-disclosure agreement lapsed -- that it wasn't true. He said he experienced side effects that were worse than any treatment he had tried and stopped taking Abilify within the first year.

Working with endorsers can be tricky, though BMS reportedly said that every collaboration, except for this one, had been positive. Indeed, the first celebrity campaign -- for the arthritis drug Voltaren(R) -- gave CIBA-Geigy (now part of Novartis) quite a pain in the late 80s. Baseball legend Mickey Mantle, who wasn't taking Voltaren and didn't disclose the corporate relationship, went about as far off message as one can go by proclaiming the drug can cure hangovers!

The WSJ article gives us some insights on how one can minimize the chances of being surprised and disappointed by a patient spokesperson. Here are some principles for your consideration:

  • Dont' talk in absolutes. When he switched to Abilify, Mr. Behrman said that all of his drug side effects "went away." This assertion was made repeatedly and never should have been sanctioned by BMS and its PR firm. While Abilify may have a better safety profile than some other atypical antipsychotics, it carries a long list of side effects and warnings on its label.

  • Ensure authenticity. The BMS contract didn't require Mr. Behrman to take Abilify yet there he was talking up the benefits.

  • Conduct due diligence. Mr. Behrman signed a waiver allowing his doctor to share his medical records but BMS never checked them.

  • Communicate good news and bad. Although Mr. Behrman said he was in almost constant contact with BMS and its PR firm, the bad news that he was, in fact, experiencing some side effects and stopped taking the medication was either ignored and/or never brought to a higher level.

  • Be prepared to jump the rails. It's hard to pull the plug on a program, an investment, but that's what we must do when things go dangerously off track.
Staying the course may end up causing some damage to the reputation of BMS. And, Mr. Behrman's reversal may call his motives into question. On his web site is a link to The Daily News gossip column, Side Dish, from November 19, 2008 that said Brad Pitt and Matt Damon may be interested in his new book, Adventures in the Drug Trade: I was a Big Pharma Pusher. So, is Andy Behrman an honest whistle blower or a calculating opportunist? Or, has he been overtaken again by his illness? It's possible that these are questions that we may not be asking if more thought, care and scrutiny went into the communications planning and review process.

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