Therapeutic Dose: The Scruffy Guy Cometh

Director Michael Moore is pointing his lens toward the pharmaceutical industry, and drug company employees are on high alert. Love Moore or hate him, enjoy the limelight while it lasts, says Managing Editor Paul Thomas. Besides, an encounter might also be an opportunity to talk about the positive work you're doing.

By Paul Thomas, Managing Editor

That Michael Moore is at it again, with his lens targeted squarely at the pharmaceutical industry. Or is it managed care and insurance? Or is it FDA? Maybe it’s those money-hungry doctors.

No one’s quite sure what Moore is after — he’s keeping mum, and his Beverly Hills-based publicist won’t return our phone calls — which has only served to heighten the paranoia. What we know is that Moore’s next film is tentatively titled "Sicko." Major pharmaceuticals have sounded the alarm for employees to be on the lookout for a scruffy guy in a baseball cap. And they don’t mean Roger Clemens.

Many firms have sent internal memos to their employees telling them to zip their lips should they come belly to belly with Moore. Already, alleged Moore sightings are clogging intranets. Rumors are floating that Moore has hired impersonators of sample-toting sales reps to infiltrate doctors’ offices, promising lavish gifts and vacations. (Just one question, though: How does one distinguish between a sales rep and a hired actor?)

Love him or hate him, want to high-five him or strangle him, Michael Moore’s oafish presence in the pharmaceutical world could be good news for people in manufacturing. If you’ve only paid attention to his last two films, "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9-11," you might think that Moore is just a limelight-hungry punk out picking fights with bullies — whether the NRA or President Bush.

But look back further to "Roger & Me" — about Moore’s tireless pursuit of former GM exec Roger Smith — and read his books like Downsize This, and you’ll realize that Moore’s heart is with the manufacturing crowd, and that he loathes kneejerk corporate downsizing. He also wants to make sure that families and their communities are not forsaken (as Flint, Mich., was in the 1980s) by the big corporations that are leaving town.

One media expert, the Poynter Institute’s Roy Clark, says Moore’s methods should have a familiar ring to the drug industry. The industry spends a lot of money on “information and disinformation and withholding information,” he told one newspaper. “They create direct-to-consumer advertisements that are meant to persuade. They tell us stories of sympathetic people whose lives were saved.”

Are drug firms really worried? Not yet. "We're well aware he's making this film, but to the best of my knowledge we have not been approached by him," said an AstraZeneca spokesperson recently. "If he does approach us, it would depend on what he would ask us. We might choose to participate or we might not."

PR experts say that it doesn’t pay to run and hide. Pharmaceutical firms should let their execs talk, under one condition: They get to film the interview, too. They can later run the complete, unedited version on the company web site to make sure the public has access to the full story.

Let’s not fret too much. If anything, Moore’s interest reminds us of how important the pharmaceutical industry is. He doesn’t pick on little guys.

A close encounter with Moore might also be an opportunity to talk about the good things going on in manufacturing today, and provide some balance to the relentless negative press about the industry.

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