PhRMA and ‘the Smartest Guys in the Room’

Jan. 31, 2006
Be sure your communications match the image you’d like others to have of you.


My late grandmother, who, as a teenager, taught in a one-room schoolhouse, was conservative, to say the least, about communication. “Never put anything in writing,” she said, “that you wouldn’t be comfortable having read out loud in a court of law.” The years have only proven how right she was.

I thought about her maxim last month, when I read about a little drama now playing out, with a plot worthy of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom ("The Producers"), involving the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and Phoenix Books, a publishing company in Beverly Hills.

The drama centers around "The Karasik Conspiracy," a thriller novel involving terrorist rings and drug counterfeiting, that advances the basic view that drug reimportation is bad. Last summer, we first heard rumors that PhRMA had commissioned the book, but I hadn’t checked on its progress until I recently read a blog written by one of its authors (

To summarize, one of PhRMA’s spin doctors reportedly commissioned the book, then withdrew funding when he was unhappy with the results. In a radio interview, he then claimed that the book’s publisher had threatened to blackmail him by publicizing PhRMA’s involvement, and had demanded the original fee they’d agreed upon, as “hush money.” Phoenix retaliated by publishing all the emails that it allegedly received from PhRMA on the book’s web site. (You can read them all on

A book destined to be a turkey has apparently received positive reviews. There’s even talk about making it into a film starring Nicole Kidman.

Now, a PhRMA representative has allegedly threatened to obtain a court order recalling every copy of the book, and has demanded that PhRMA-related emails be removed from the book’s web site.

This situation will, no doubt, blow over soon, but it only adds yet another tiny ripple to the negative spin swirling around the drug industry.

Any responsible organization has to ensure that written or verbal communications won’t come back to haunt them. If any of you have seen the documentary about Enron, “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” or read the book that it was based on, you know how “enlightening” emails and telephone conversations can be.

Not that PhRMA’s intentions were all bad. But it is surprising that one of the largest industry trade groups in the world could have been so sloppy about email communications. It also surprised me that PhRMA would be willing to pay anything, let alone six figures, for an untested potboiler.

Especially since the organization hasn’t included manufacturing in its “outreach” efforts, despite the fact that drug manufacturing costs $90 billion/year, so much more than R&D and marketing. Just look at PhRMA’s web site. The “Manufacturers” in its name seems quaint and out of place. The "M" seems to stand  for "Marketers."

Last year, when we asked the group to support us and to post a notice on its web site about last year’s Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Teams of the Year — most of them from member companies, by the way — we were told that the organization “didn’t have the resources.”

We know that PhRMA’s function is primarily lobbying. But it is also supposed to be improving the industry’s public image, which is better done with facts than with fiction.

As Microsoft CEO Bill Gates once said, in this age of email and instant communication, “We live the observed life.” Not just corporate CEOs, but all of us. Some of us already knew this, long  before e-mail and the Internet even existed. Others may be learning the hard way.

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