Merck & Co.'s campaign to defend itself in the wake of the recall of the pain reliever Vioxx intensified as it placed a package of three full-page ads in seven prominent newspapers beginning last Friday. That follows several television appearances as well as testimony before Congress by the company's chief executive.
But public relations experts are calling the campaign predictable and said it lacks a crucial element necessary to bolster Merck's claims that it acted responsibly and timely in removing Vioxx from the market: Parties with no self interest or financial ties to the company coming to its defense.
"When people read ads, they discount them because they know the company paid for them," said Howard Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein Associates, a New York-based public relations firm whose crisis-management clients have included Christie's International PLC and Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. "What they did was appropriate, sure. But they really need some third-party endorsements."
Rubenstein added that Merck's strategy of asserting it withdrew Vioxx immediately upon learning there was a link between the drug and a higher risk of heart attack and strokes could backfire if plaintiffs' lawyers prove the company understood the side effects much earlier and stifled the news.
That's because if lawyers prove Merck muzzled Vioxx's risks, the company may be forced to pay punitive as well as compensatory damages. The public relations campaign could be viewed as part of that cover up, said Benjamin Zipursky, a professor at Fordham University School of Law.
Estimates of Vioxx's legal costs have varied widely, reaching from $4 billion to $18 billion. But Rubenstein said even if Merck can survive financially, any proof that it put profits in front of patients would devastate its already tarnished reputation.
Merck withdrew Vioxx from the market on Sep. 30 after a study showed patients taking it for 18 months had double the risk of heart attacks and strokes than those taking placebo. A series of internal e-mails and company memos leaked to the press beginning on Nov. 1 suggested the company knew about the side effects long before the drug was withdrawn. Since then, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a report that said Vioxx may have contributed to an additional 27,785 heart attacks or deaths from 1999 to 2003 and a study in the respected medical journal The Lancet contended Merck should have taken the drug off the market years ago.
Merck has said the memos and e-mails have been taken out of context and that it acted responsibly, withdrawing the drug when it fully understood the problem. It said studies such as the one published by the FDA researcher, which mine past patient medical records for information, are not as scientifically valid as controlled clinical trials. The company also said The Lancet's analysis of 29 Vioxx studies did not include two studies more favorable to its drug.
The ad campaign began with a full-page ad in The New York Times on Friday, Nov. 12, which said Merck's actions on Vioxx were "consistent with putting the interests of patients first as well as with faithful adherence to the best principles of scientific discipline and transparency." Two different full-page ads followed in several newspapers. Starting last Friday, all three ads began running simultaneously in papers including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
Over the course of last week, Merck's chairman Raymond Gilmartin appeared on several news shows to defend the company. He testified before Congress last Thursday at a hearing examining the Vioxx withdrawal, where he said: "We are confident that a careful and complete examination of Merck's conduct shows that, at all times, we acted responsibly and in a manner consistent with Merck's commitment to patient safety and to our rigorous adherence to scientific investigation, openness and integrity."
Gilmartin said his wife was taking Vioxx until the moment it was withdrawn.
Merck declined to say which public relations firms were helping it with its campaign or how much it was spending. But, for example, three ads in the global edition of The Wall Street Journal without a discount cost $596,736. Merck also wouldn't say whether it was attempting to get outsiders to speak on its behalf.
Public relations expert David Margulies said it is crucial for Merck to have outside experts come to its defense and explain the challenges of the drug discovery process and the difficulties in assessing the risks versus the rewards of a medicine. Margulies, who is president of his eponymous firm in Dallas, said Merck needs to convince the public that the decision to withdraw a drug is not as simple as plaintiff lawyers' claim.
"They need to make this a bigger issue than just Vioxx," said Margulies.
Merck's efforts to salvage its reputation won't be easy, according to Rubenstein.
"This is a public relations nightmare," said Rubenstein, who added that Merck's reputation has fallen among numerous groups, including doctors, patients, scientists and investors. All will require special attention to win back their trust, he said.
Merck had the misfortune to follow other notorious corporate scandals such as the debacles at Enron Corp. and Adelphia Communications Corp., which had already trigged an American distrust of corporations, Rubenstein said.
Yet he said Merck's situation is worse because it transcends the loss of money and integrity. Said Rubenstein, "People died."
- 1 none