Monday, April 9, 2007

'Round the Sphere: The Zubillaga Affair and Aftermath

The Zubillaga Affair is ringing through the Pharma Blogosphere, turning a quiet holiday weekend into a blog feeding frenzy!

In case you are just coming back from a sans Internet vacation, the Zubillaga Affair concerns an AstraZeneca internal Oncology newsletter that published a controversial analogy made by Mike Zubillaga, AZ's Mid-Atlantic regional sales director/oncology. Mike was subsequently terminated and AZ is currently trying to worm its way out of an embarrassing regulatory/employee management faux pas.

It all started with a post on CafePharma, which is not technically a blog, but by virtue of this recent flap, has won a place in the "Outer Sphere" list (see right).

Then, Peter Rost got hold of the "smoking gun" and distributed it amongst his blogger pals (see Question Authority).

The story was quickly picked up by BrandweekNRX, Pharmalot, PharmaGossip, and finally, AP via the Philadelphia Inquirer!

The best way to track all this is under Question Authority's AstraZeneca topic label.

While other bloggers speculated on who else would be fired at AZ to coverup its lax oversight of published employee comments, I refelected on how this would affect the adoption of blogging by pharmaceutical companies (see "The Zubillaga Affair: Effect on the Prospects for Pharma Blogging").

Although I feel this will nip off any pharma "toes in the blogging water," I still held out hope for pharma employee blogs if the following criteria could be met:

Rules for Pharma Employee Blogging
The following personnel should NOT be allowed to contribute to employee blogs:

  • Marketing, sales, legal, or corporate communications personnel
  • Managers or higher
The following personnel should be ENCOURAGED to contribute to employee blogs:
  • Rank and file employees including secretaries, assistants, etc.
  • Research and development personnel, including clinicians, lab people, etc.
Peter Rost thought I had lost my mind:

I have to admit that I fail to understand why a secretary could be more trusted blogging than someone in legal, or corporate communications personnel. John, are you OK over there???

Frankly, to think that any highly regulated pharma company would encourage their employees to blog at anytime, anywhere, about anything, including the company is ludicrous.

I offer the following in defense of my sanity:

My idea for pharma employee blogs is to help pharmaceutical companies bring opinions of the rank-and-file employee to the forefront.

We always hear from the corporate shills and the sales and marketing people as well as approved messages from managers, directors and CEOs. These employees are incorrigible BS artists! What I seldom get to hear is what the rank-and-file "pharma folks" think.

I would never trust ANY employee to submit posts to a blog without some oversight (ie, moderation)! But the oversight should be a decision to post the entry or not to post it, rather than submitting it to corporate communications for a re-write. The employee can be asked to reword some things to protect trade secrets, etc., but the employee can opt-out of having the edited post put into the blog.

Who should moderate such a blog? That is a good question. Sorry, I don't feel like giving away all my ideas for free!

The important thing is to hear the "voice" of the rank-and-file. I believe that many of these people are honest people who believe in what their companies are doing and they may not like some excessive marketing and sales practices that we all see criticized every day.

From the perspective of the pharma company, I am sure they would not want negative blog posts from employees pointing out the problems of the industry -- there is enough of that on CafePharma and elsewhere.

What the industry needs -- and frankly what I'd like to see -- is genuine, POSITIVE stories told in the real voice of employees. Yes, it may be one-sided, but it is the side of the story the industry always complains never gets told, at least not from believable sources.

P.S. Poll Results
I almost forgot to mention the PharmaGossip Poll. According to Peter Rost in a comment to the WSJ Health Blog post on this subject: "According to the poll going on over at PharmaGossip, most people seem to feel that the guy was just telling it like it is and that AstraZeneca is trying to put out a fire they started. I agree with those comments, especially considering that AstraZeneca had no problem with the quotes in the newsletter for months, until it was discovered by news media."

P.P.S. AZ Takes No Action Until Discovered by News Media
Although we have to give the Pharma Blogosphere (especially Question Authority) for "breaking" this story, it still takes the traditional media to get action. Of course, we've seen this time and time again.

The lesson here is that pharmaceutical companies need to monitor the Pharma Blogosphere with more diligence and they may be able to buy some time to make the right decision BEFORE it hits the press!

P.P.P.S. It Was Beauty (Rost) That Killed the Beast Zubillaga!
See comments.


Anonymous said...

I had doubts before but this clinches it for me. You definitely have either never have worked at a pharmaceutical company or have not worked in one since 1999. What company would allow this type of feedback and not expect to get investigated is unfathomable. Blogging is for those who wish to remain anonymous in this industry and will never catch on mainstream due to the regulatory reviews that are done.

PharmaGuy said...

Well, you better talk to the folks at J&J, who seem really interested in the idea. Ask the bloggers who they invited to dinner.

Peter Rost said...

Interesting stuff, John. One thought . . . what surprised me was that AZ actually discovered the issue right away on my blog, based on traffic data. And AZ and Edelman PR then spent most of Friday morning visiting and reading, then firing the guy, before telling anyone in the regular press (Philadelphia Inquirer.) So all it took was two regular blogs to get the company to take action. Well, one, Pharmalot, is written by a professional journalist, so I guess the line between mainstream and blog is getting more and more blurred.

PharmaGuy said...


Thanks for sharing that info. I just assumed it was the mainstream media that killed the beast Zubillaga, but it was actually "beauty" (ie, you) that killed the beast!


. said...

Dear John,

I apologize for jumping in, but of course I will. I think if PHARMA rank and file members want to blog on their own time, they certainly can, if it doesn't violate their employment contracts; they can do so anonymously if it does. Doing it at work is a total time sink, and I discourage it at work and ENCOURAGE it on their own time.

I know PHARMA rank and file members personally and thru my employment. None of them can communicate in writing with the persuasive ability and humor of you and Peter. Therefore, after the novelty wears off, I don't think there will be much interesting to read (given that trade secrets are moderated :).
People often use blogs to get things off their chest, and for that reason, the NON-sharks and sharks alike, go trolling for issues among disenfranchised employees.

But, I think the basic point is being missed. High Tech rank and file members abound on the internet. They have the IRC, secret servers, blogs,, they use RSS readers, read Slashdot, use delicious, and all those other high tech modes of communication that take PR and marketers years to catch up with.

The computer geniuses know, that by the time YOU all catch up, we need a new medium. They have done it before and will do it again. The high tech liberal males try to shed the blatant marketing and self promotion that occurs when the PR marketing world finds the next great place where 24 - 44 year old rich, intelligent men can be advertised to. They hate it, and they see through it. The only ones that like it, are the lucky FEW who get all the free products.. like the cool guys on Diggnation. They USE advertising and PR and they rock.

All blogs are advertising of some sort, whether sexy, ranting or whistle blowing and consumer alerting.

I think you guys are the best.


Dr. B. K.