GSK in PR blitz ahead of Moore's 'Sicko' blast at drugs companies

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The Independent Online

GlaxoSmithKline, Europe's biggest drugs maker, is turning its 8,000 US workers into public relations ambassadors as the industry girds itself for further bad press after the upcoming release of Sicko, an exposé of the American healthcare industry by controversial film director Michael Moore.

The company's Value of Medicine campaign, under which it is encouraging salespeople to meet with local community groups, give speeches and explain the positive aspects of the industry, is the first of its kind. "It allows us to finally tell our side of the story," said a GSK spokeswoman.

She added that the campaign was not in response to Mr Moore's documentary.

Ken Johnson, senior vice- president of trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, applauded GSK's initiative and said he expected others in the industry to follow suit.

"From our perspective, it's not enough for salespeople to be marketers of products. They need to be ambassadors of the industry as well," he said. "We have a great industry and shouldn't be ashamed of defending it."

The initiative reflects the more proactive approach that the industry has adopted over the past year at a time when its image is at an all-time low.

Films such as The Constant Gardener and the bookHard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, by a former Pfizer employee, have tarnished a reputation already sullied by drug scandals, such as the 2004 withdrawal of Merck's pain reliever, Vioxx. A poll last year found that 70 per cent of respondents in the US, the world's biggest pharmaceuticals market, thought drug makers prized profits over healing people.

"... Michael Moore is not interested in telling both sides of the story," said Mr Johnson. "Sensible people will dismiss his work for what it is, a one-sided attack on America's health system."

However, reactions to GSK's campaign have been mixed. "The pharma industry is in a PR crisis and the stakes are very high right now," said Agnes Shanley, editor-in-chief of trade magazine Pharmaceutical Manufacturing. "Getting salespeople to memorise a bunch of facts is not going to make anyone trust the industry more."

The drug industry's image in the UK is better than in the US, but "there are clearly matters to address," said a spokesman for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry. "It is very common practice among companies to regard all members of the workforce as at least partial PR reps."

Mr Moore has been working on Sicko since 2004.