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Merck looks to rebuild reputation one year on from Vioxx

Published on 13/10/05 at 02:25pm

Merck looks set to launch a new public relations campaign across Europe in an attempt to repair damage done to its corporate image by the Vioxx affair.

The company's reputation has been acutely damaged since it withdrew the arthritis painkiller on 30 September 2004, hit by accusations it ignored drug side-effects thought to have caused potentially thousands of heart attacks and strokes.

Despite continuing problems - including ongoing lawsuits - the company wants to go beyond 'fire-fighting' and promote awareness of its contribution to society, which is routinely overlooked in the media.

The head of external affairs at the company's UK subsidiary Merck Sharp & Dohme said it wants to go one step further - contributing to a more sophisticated debate about the future of drug safety, and the risk/benefit profile of medicines.

In the US, Merck has hired PR firm Burson-Marsteller to provide an integrated marketing campaign that includes media relations and educational materials. This is being backed up with an advertising campaign produced by Ogilvy & Mather and a new magazine for patients.

In the UK, Merck Sharp & Dohme says it is already engaged in extensive activity to improve its understanding of customer perceptions of the company.

Kate Tillett, director of external affairs at MSD, said: "Clearly the withdrawal of Vioxx has presented us with a communications challenge - but one that we intend to approach in a professional way."

The company wants to persuade UK stakeholders that it acted responsibly and Tillett said it is actively considering how to respond to issues raised by the withdrawal.

"We are looking to maintain the company profile as an ethical player in the healthcare arena. Our ethical practice and strength has always been at the forefront of our business and now we are just more focused on how essential it is to continue this."

In the US, Merck has been able to use direct to consumer advertising to balance out the bad news by informing the public about its contribution to public health - a direct communication with the public that will not be available in Europe.

Len Tacconi, executive director of corporate communications at Merck, said European subsidiaries would lead on the public relations activity and the magazine.

Merck says its current campaign pre-dates Vioxxs withdrawal - though clearly the controversy has given the efforts renewed focus. Work on the US consumer advertising began in January 2003 as a way to communicate to the public the good things the company does, such as patient assistance programmes, drug access initiatives in Africa and the Merck Manuals - the world's most widely used medical reference books.

Tacconi commented: "The company has a history of really making a difference on global health and, from my perspective, few people knew about the impact that Merck has had and its a wonderful story that we believe is worth telling."

"We're very excited that management has given us the opportunity to tell it and as we do that here Im pretty sure it will start to expand throughout the rest of the world from a Merck perspective."

Nonetheless the pharma company remains mired in the financial and PR after-effects - most recently a Texas court ruled Vioxx had caused the premature death of a 59-year-old marathon runner and ordered Merck to pay $253 million (141 million pounds) to his widow.

Merck is appealing the verdict, but the ruling means Merck could face up to 4,000 similar lawsuits around the world because of the drug. In 2003 Vioxx earned Merck $2.5 billion, making it the companys second highest seller behind Zocor.

An estimated 20 million US patients took Vioxx since its launch in 1999 with a further 200,000 patients in the UK thought to have used it - hundreds of whom claim it caused their heart attacks.

UK regulator the MHRA is investigating whether MSD withheld information about the potential risks of Vioxx when it applied for its UK licence in 1999 and if the company is found to have withheld clinical trial data, senior executives would face criminal charges.

After a year of hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons, Merck is keen to repair its battered image, and use the episode as an opportunity to continue a mature debate about the risks and benefits of medicines.

Despite media coverage of the affair being predominantly negative, Tillett indicated there was scope for Merck to move on from it.

"Behind the headlines on Vioxx, there has actually been a fair amount of reasoned comment and debate about the balance of risk/benefit and medicines safety," said MSD's Tillett. "Its a debate that is key for the future of this industry, and we need to make sure that our voice is heard."

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