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February 23, 2006

Glaxo Launches PR Ambassador Program -- Reports AdAge.com

AdAge.com had a very interesting article today, "Glaxo drafts employees to polish industry image." (registration required) The article describes the $35.4 billion pharmaceutical company’s efforts to harness 8,000 of their sales reps to conduct a word of mouth program in communities across the US. The program calls on Glaxo sales reps to attend community events at chambers of commerce and associations to actively present Glaxo's communications message. The reps will act as "public relations ambassadors." Michael Pucci, GlaxoSmithKine's VP of external advocacy kicked off the program. Glaxo ambassadors will also talk about healthcare issues with family, friends and the business community in informal settings.

Mr. Pucci described that research has shown that customers and the public will believe information presented by family, friends and ordinary employees over and above corporate communicators.

One industry competitor voiced their misgivings about the program, "“But I’m not sure I want 8,000 people on the ground given that level of responsibility to basically speak for a company and an industry. With that many, the odds say there’s going to be a percentage of them -- however small -- that will make a mistake, or stray from the script, or whatever.?

No news on whether GlaxoSmithKline will be blogging any time soon. I’ve written on the issue of highly regulated industries and healthcare blogging before. And I personally thought it was unlikely that Pharmaceutical companies would embrace the medium anytime soon. But this development probably brings the day closer when pharmaceutical companies will blog. I’d like to hear more from Glaxo about their existing blogging and consumer generated media communications policy for all employees. If the company has 8,000 employees actively taking a public relations role, some of those employees must have a blog. How does what those sales reps say in the community translate for the web?

There are concerns about this type of word of mouth program from an ethical standpoint. Reported in AdAge.com, ‘Dr. Donna Sweet, chair of the Board of Regents for the American College of Physicians, which is on record as opposing direct-to-consumer advertising. “It’s not a bad idea if these people are acting as good citizens and telling the truth and not trying to sway people. But I have a hard time believing they’re going to be completely fair and honest in all situations.?’ If the Glaxo reps are not misrepresenting themselves, what’s the difference between a Glaxo PR professional communicating this message and the rep? Little if any, in the sense the listener will know that the speaker is representing Glaxo. But Dr. Sweet might have a point about worrying about being completely fair and honest. Glaxo will have to conduct some very good training on the reps should present information and answer questions in order to do both a good job and not misrepresent themselves.

If you have read the Cluetrain Manifesto you will know the authors describes markets as conversations and that companies have to get out of the way of customers talking directly with their employees if a company is going to be successful. Companies already trust their employees to sell products, provide customer service and generally manage their brand value on a daily basis. It makes sense that those same employees should be free to talk about PR issues directly.

Posted by johncass at February 23, 2006 2:48 PM

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Comments

Great post John. The blogosphere has been buzzing about GSK's move to deputize its reps. It's an interesting tactic and I'm eager to see how it turns out.

By the way, GSK has an official blog -- in France. Corporate Blogging.info reported on the GSK blog in June. Click here for the report.

The blog focuses on the future of healthcare in France and is meant to help the company directly address criticism, etc. Go to http://www.avenirdelasante.fr/ to view the site.

Posted by: Fard Johnmar at February 23, 2006 8:11 PM

Fard, thanks for the follow up comment. Thanks for the link to the GSK blog. Any thoughts on the Glaxo program? Are any other pharma companies running this type of program?

Posted by: john cass at February 23, 2006 9:07 PM

John:

GSK is the only pharma company I know of that has an official blog. Overall, I think that GSK is doing a good thing for two reasons:

1. GSK has found a way to manage an essentially unmanagable form of communiation. By that I mean how GSK has managed comments to its blog. It moderates comments and has an established comment policy that it follows. However, the policy seems pretty loose.

2. I also think that the blog fits into GSK's overall position that it has to take responsibility for doing something to address the public's negative feelings about pharma. Whatever one thinks about GSK's use of sales reps for PR, it's a gutsy move. The French blog is another gustsy move that may or may not pan out. However, at least people have an opportunity to initiate a dialouge with GSK -- and for GSK to address people's concerns about the industry.

Maybe the French blog and the recent PR sales rep thing indicates that GSK is planning on developing a blog here in the U.S. If so, that would be very good news.

Posted by: Fard Johnmar at February 23, 2006 10:46 PM

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