Commentary

Here's What Merck, Schering-Plough Should Do

Merck and Schering-Plough have a major PR crises on their hands as they pull their TV ads for two of their blockbuster cholesterol lowering drugs, Vytorin and Zetia, that generate over $5 billion in annual revenue and run full-page ads in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The companies say, in part:

"You may be worried about recent news stories questioning the benefit of these medicines ... on the basis of a single study that has generated a lot of confusion. All of us at Merck and Schering-Plough proudly stand behind the established efficacy and safety profiles of Zetia and Vytorin."

While some response is generally better than no response, in this case, these companies are not offering anything substantive with these print ads, and they could be viewed as somewhat self-serving or superficial, which is not going to help them in the court of public opinion.

I'm not in a position to discuss the medical or scientific basis of the study, how these drugs work compared to other cholesterol-lowering medications, what it means for those at risk of heart attack and stroke, or why it takes 20 months to release the results of a clinical trial.

But I would like to explore how companies facing PR challenges like this can use the Web to effectively reach out to consumers, patients, the medical community and all other interested parties.

Yes, Merck and Schering-Plough are taking out full-page ads in national newspapers, but what percentage of people currently taking these drugs and interested in learning more about the controversy will turn to a newspaper to access up-to-the minute information?

According to numerous studies, up to 80% of online adults routinely use the Web to access health information - and that's during normal conditions. When a health crises hits, I wonder how many more go straight to the Web? I know I do.

Here, then, is what Merck and Schering-Plough ought to be doing to limit damage control:

  • Update the corporate Web site and fast. Prominently post your response and use plain English when describing what happened, what you are being accused of and how you plan to respond. Avoid sounding defensive. Adopt a tone of concern and honest appraisal. "We take these accusations seriously. We're concerned about the welfare of our customers. We're establishing an independent review board. We will keep the public updated on our efforts." Etc.
  • Alternatively, launch a new site dedicated to communicating to the public about the event. That way, you can communicate in a clean, neutral environment outside of the normal product marketing channel found on your existing Web site.
  • Run a banner campaign targeting audiences most likely to be affected by and interested in the products in question. For drugs such as Vytorin and Zetia, targeting cardio health sites and cholesterol sections is the most obvious tactic as is targeting general health sites and health ad networks. Being proactive can allow companies to get in front of the message instead of being in a persistently reactive mode.
  • Gentlemen start your search engines! If you do a search today for "Vytorin study," you will see results from everyone but the companies who own and market the product. Why cede this incredible information source to every blogger, hacker, rumor monger, malcontent, pharma hater and weirdo out there? A well-known health publisher is even running a hastily executed (and in my opinion, poorly thought-out) search text ad with the title "Ineffective Drug Found." That's harsh.
  • Respond to the blogosphere. The conversations are taking place whether you participate or not and whether you like it or not. Even if you operate under the constraints of a highly regulated industry like the drug companies do, there must be something that you can say that will not get you in trouble with the lawyers or the FDA. For instance, the "Health Blog" on the Wall Street Journal (one of the better health blogs out there) is going crazy with stories, posts and responses about the Vytorin issue - some of them are actually very informative. Even a simple post such as: "We appreciate everyone's concern about this issue and we invite you to visit our Web site where you can learn more about how we are responding to the situation" - would at least get you involved in the conversation and keep you on the right side of the lawyers. Again, this gives you the opportunity to drive traffic to your site where you control the messaging.

In the current environment, where news travels at lightning speed, opinions are shaped in hours and markets respond in minutes, it's more imperative than ever that companies have a Web- based disaster plan in place. These are a few strategies that can help any company get through the crisis.

Robert Kadar is CEO and founder of Good Health Advertising, a health and medical online advertising network and sales representation firm based in New York. For more information, visit GoodHealthAdvertising.com.

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