More than a Matter of Appearances: Pharma’s Existential PR Problem


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the tarnished image that has made Pharma a whipping boy for politicians on both the left and the right—the one thing they all agree on.

Who in the industry stood up for Pfizer and Ian Read?  On the PBS Evening News Hour a White House spokesman smugly repeated verbatim the president’s mischaracterization of the transaction. But there was no industry rebuttal.

The pharmaceutical industry must communicate a consistent message regarding its devotion to treating debilitating disease and the value of pharmaceuticals.  Television news shows the horrors of drug addiction, but fails to mention the suffering alleviated by these same opioid drugs.

The campaign needs to be relentless. Think of Reagan and the Cold War.  I helped start a company with a scientist from the former Yugoslavia during the conflict in Bosnia.  On her visits home she brought two things to keep friends and family alive: U.S. dollars and pharmaceuticals.  No other products made anywhere in the world can touch that value proposition, and yet somehow it gets lost in the discussion.

At a dinner some years ago John Lechleiter, the CEO of Eli Lilly, recounted a day he had spent talking with members of Congress.  When asked what he had accomplished, he thought a moment and said, “Well, maybe we convinced at least some of them that generic companies don’t create generic medicines.”

These are the people who make the rules that govern our industry.  If they don’t know the difference between a generic and a proprietary drug, how can we expect them to understand the industry’s more nuanced needs for  sustaining innovation?

Pharma must focus attention on value, or it will surely be lost.  Not even big pharma can invest hundreds of millions over 15 years with a less than 10 percent chance of success, knowing that the payoff will be determined, not by the value created, but what public opinion decides is “fair” a decade or more in the future.

How many people understand that the Merck drug pembrolizumab (Keytruda) is the reason that Jimmy Carter is alive today?  The pharmaceutical industry literally works miracles… and gets credit for dodging taxes.

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Standish Fleming is a 29-year veteran of early stage, life sciences investing. He has helped raise and manage six venture funds totaling more than $500 million and served on the boards of 19 venture-backed companies, including Nereus Pharmaceuticals, Ambit Biosciences, Triangle Pharmaceuticals (acquired by Gilead Sciences) and Actigen/Corixa (now part of GSK). Follow @

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