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Evaluating the media: Communicating Uncomfortable News

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Communicating Uncomfortable News

‘Organisations are run by managers and their job is to make decisions which will guarantee the survival and grow of a company’…so says the management text book. Sometimes they are difficult decisions and involve people’s futures. None more so than for Pfizer who recently announced the closure of its massive R&D lab in Sandwich.

Over the recent years pharmaceutical research has been apparently moving toward biologics, or as the FT recently put it, moving away from the bench and towards the bedside. I can’t hope to explain the complexities of this shift but we must acknowledge that pharmaceutical firms need to do what’s necessary to continue. There seems to be a growing acknowledgement that it is more productive for drug development to be integrated within academic institutions, rather than to have large dedicated R&D facilities. This was one of my main take-outs from reading a selection of recent media coverage on the closure and would seem to support the view that Pfizer has done what it needs to do.

Pfizer announced the closure on the 1st February. They made no other public statement until the sites leader was interviewed at the Sandwich plant a week later in relation to the task force to mitigate the effects. I feel this may have been too long. There was considerable national and regional media interest and into this vacuum poured conjecture and some criticism.

I have also been studying the Pfizer Twitter stream, which is always a good headline media measure and while it was trending for a few days the feed was mainly factual linking to news reports. What views were expressed focussed on the unexpected nature of the announcement. The employees have been asked not to talk to the media and while radio stations like BBC Radio Kent tried to gather views from among the employees, they were mostly in vain. The anger was often focussed on lack of warning about the closure.

My view is Pfizer handled the announcement well. Expressing its scale and impact was going to be the main challenge for the media. It was recognised that Pfizer was willing to play a part. The authorities and politician had a far tougher time of it. The local MP’s sounded well-meaning but with few ideas. The Prime Minister said it was ‘depressing news’. I would say their response was depressingly predictable. The community needs to hear more about high-speed rail to London, university involvement and small-scale pharma venture support.

But Pfizer is not off the hook. The challenge is not being caste as wanting to just wash their hands of the place. We should not forget Pfizer has some experience of dealing with site closures and will realise they are messy and unpredictable.

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