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Heather Bresch Needs A Dose of Empathy

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Business leaders take note: when a New York Times headline has you denying you are a villain, public perception is exactly the opposite. Unfortunately for her, (and for shareholders) Mylan’s Heather Bresch is facing significant public perception and reputation issues related to the price increase on the popular allergy treatment, EpiPen.

For a variety of reasons, costs of healthcare in all its forms have increased significantly from insurance premiums to doctor visits. Many are looking to place blame for the increases, but few are raising their hand to admit responsibility. Why would they?

Yet, surprisingly, Bresch is taking the defensive position, volunteering for the villain role by being quick to point out that she is running a business, “a for-profit entity,” and is unapologetic about the need for her business to make money and be accountable to shareholders.

While accurate, a business message doesn’t help Bresch make her case, or garner much (if any) support for her or Mylan’s position. In fact, it has the opposite impact and allows others to pile on and be critical of the actions that have led to this point. The New York Times reported that even analysts were warning that the price increase would cause a public relations storm.

It seems everyone understands how public perception can impact the bottom line, yet business leaders often choose to fight against this trend.

A series of strategic communications mistakes have led Mylan to this point. From waiting too long to unveil cost savings measures for EpiPen consumers, and failing to amplify improvements the company has made to the product. Traditional marketing activities around the benefits of EpiPen could have made a price increase more palatable, and avoided some of the intense scrutiny the company and its leadership is now facing. The coupon is even being exposed for benefitting the company more than the consumer, and critics are being warned not to be fooled.

It’s not too late for Mylan to start this process, and go on the offense. However, it seems the company is staying on defense and allowing the doors to be open to other related and unrelated damaging attacks (from executive compensation, legitimacy of Bresch’s business degree, and blocking the merger with Teva.) Even Sarah Jessica Parker is using this as an opportunity to pile on by ending her role with the company while Bresch is being compared to shunned “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli.

From a reputational standpoint things really could not be worse.

Bresch’s defensive posture in her interview with The New York Times leads an already skeptical audience to believe that she has something to be defensive about. By even addressing the similarities between her and Mr. Shkreli she solidifies in the minds of anyone there is a connection — or at least some similarity of actions taken between the two — that will be tough to shake now that it is established. It seems that she never clarified her strategic objective for the interview or gave much thought of her audience before talking to the reporter.

By taking a defensive approach Bresch ignores where her audience is emotionally. Those who need an EpiPen don’t care about her business but they do care about the value of its products. Changing hearts and minds takes an emotional connection, not a calculated explanation.

Making the most of a media interview takes preparation and practice. We coach clients on this art regularly and help spokespeople and executives keep their eye on the big picture. To move beyond the current crisis, Bresch must take another shot, but this time she must keep the big picture in mind as she switches from defense to offense.

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