As was once explained by some management consultant whose name went unrecorded, there have always been two synchronous elements that are core to the pharmaceutical industry. First is the chemical entity, and next is the communications component—with the latter requirement, you see, necessary in explaining the former.
Recently, Big Pharma’s demonstrated strength has been in chemicals; communications… not so much. Truth to tell, Big Pharma has often been really, really awful at the communications part, especially when it comes to conveying the much-misunderstood “value proposition.”
That is a major irony for a sector which has its early-19th century roots in the travelling medicine-show circuit, where interlocutors once spieled with enough directness, and with sufficient persuading power, to expeditiously separate the yokels from their greenbacks. But maybe we’d better strike that last phrase. Perhaps a less provocative selection of words might be “…to have demonstrated product value to a potential stakeholder group,” although the historical record shows the first description was usually the more accurate one.
Be that as it may, it remains odd that while the medicines have improved beyond measure during the last century-and-a-half, the communications effort undertaken by pharma has become correspondingly worse. There are too many examples of poor and faulty communications to enumerate—but as one random example, try squinting at the incomprehensible disclosures that follow DTC ads on US television, before deciding whether or not you concur with our point.
Many of these American DTC ads seem to be broadcast on the Fox News Channel—which is an apt venue, given the large size of the Fox News audience, and its demographics, which skew toward older viewers. Perhaps that is what GlaxoSmithKline board chair Sir Christopher Gent was thinking two years ago, when he recruited James R.J. Murdoch to serve as a non-executive director of GSK.
Murdoch, of course, is the son of K. Rupert Murdoch, the founder of the News Corporation empire, which owns and operates U.S.-based Fox News. “Our newest director, James, here, is a fellow from Fleet Street, and all that,” Sir Christopher may have told his fellow board members. “Just the right sort of chap to assist in getting out our message, what?”
Well, that board appointment happened two years ago, long before the exposure of the Murdoch media companies’ deep involvement in unseemly—not to mention illegal—activity. However, before terms such as ‘phone hacking’ and ‘blagging’ became known to the public (meaning, gross violations of privacy laws, and impersonation with wilful intent to defraud), the Murdochs’ Fox News Channel was engaged in a smear campaign aimed at derailing President Obama’s plan to expand health coverage to the uninsured. Famously, Fox News has been a tireless adversary of nearly each of Obama’s programs and policies, but the network’s preponderance of voices opposed to what they demonized as ‘socialized medicine’ quickly moved beyond earnest disagreement with a policy proposal, to something far worse.
Which will introduce these remarks from Dennis Miller, the one-time Saturday Night Live jester, now reinvented as a social commentator, appearing on “The O’Reilly Factor” news program (04/13/11): “I do believe in Darwin, in that I believe in the survival of the fittest, to some degree… I do think people want to give. I think they’re getting sick of propping up losers, and I think we’ve reached a point in history where we have to separate those who break our hearts and deserve it, and those who are just screw-ups… This is the Serengeti Plains. If somebody’s going to perpetually exhibit a limp, they’re gonna get fed on… That’s the way life works.”
That said, it makes for an especially dodgy set of circumstances when a leading global healthcare organization maintains a directorship for an individual whose media properties amplify the attitudes toward life espoused by a Dennis Miller: “This is the Serengeti Plains. If somebody’s going to perpetually exhibit a limp, they’re gonna get fed on… That’s the way life works.” Is it, indeed, Mr. Board Chairman?
Miller claims to speak for Charles Darwin, which is a ludicrous misreading of Darwinian thought. Darwin never claimed that it’s alright to despise your neighbor, because you judge him to be weaker, dumber, poorer and less deserving than you. To claim so is to deliberately cross-pollinate Darwinism with the solipsistic childishness of Ayn Rand. On the other hand, it’s possible to imagine Rupert and James Murdoch nodding in fervent agreement whenever their microphones are used to convey this kind of message.
But it’s inconceivable that Chris Gent, or any other director of a major Life Sciences group, might see things that way. That is because the two synchronous elements of the pharmaceutical industry are well established, and you would no more want your organization associated with unworthy chemicals than you would want it connected to dishonorable messaging. No healthcare company can ever be seen as there to condone the infliction of injury. The same can’t be said of the Murdoch Family, its law-breaking employees, its scurrilous newspapers, and its discordant broadcasts.
Which begs the question: Is a person such as James Murdoch fit to hold a directorship in a group such as GSK?