Anyone who reads the news, or at least subscribes to The Daily Skimm, will remember the August 2016 media storm surrounding Mylan Pharmaceuticals, the producer of the EpiPen. EpiPens – for those lucky individuals who don’t have a life threatening allergy – are travel-sized shots of epinephrine, or liquid adrenaline, that prevent an individual suffering from an allergic reaction from going into anaphylactic shock. Basically, an EpiPen is both a miracle drug and a necessity for anyone with a life-threatening allergy.
In my case, I’m deathly allergic to peanuts, and I always have been. I was that annoying kid in elementary school who kept you from having Reese’s Peanut Butter cups at the class holiday party and who was asked to sit at a separate table at lunch (I politely declined). Luckily, my parents have health insurance and, like clockwork, with every yearly check-up I received a new EpiPen prescription at a relatively inexpensive price. My allergy was always a minor inconvenience that I never gave much thought to, simply because I was fortunate enough to afford medicine if and when I needed it.
So why, in August of 2016, were allergy shots suddenly all over the news? Mylan, the sole producer of the EpiPen, experienced a barrage of negative publicity after raising the baseline price of a single EpiPen to $600, the final installment in an overall 400 percent price increase in the past six years alone, according to forbes.com.
After this announcement, public figures (think celebrities and senators) and the public in general took to social media to voice strong, negative opinions about the seemingly unfair pricing of a drug a significant amount of the population needs to survive. Many suggested the ludicrous pricing point was manipulative, because Mylan doesn’t actually even make epinephrine, the life-saving miracle drug in the shots. Instead, it produces the small, inexpensive ejector pen that releases the medicine into the body.
How did Mylan handle this PR crisis? For those with serious allergies and no health insurance, the 2016 Mylan price increase was the final straw. Under pressure from Congress to lower prices, Mylan attempted to remedy the uproar by offering financial assistance for those who would struggle to pay for EpiPens at market price.
Critics weren’t satisfied and saw through this PR defensive maneuver as merely a cover-up, instead of an actual solution. Finally, Mylan announced that it would lower the price of the general EpiPen to $300, cutting the original price in half and, in doing so, accepted responsibility for its previous possibly immoral actions. Mylan CEO Heather Bresch received much of the heat online, and took to the media to defend both Mylan and her own actions. She attempted change the narrative surrounding healthcare prices, citing middlemen and high priced insurance plans as contributors to increasing drug problems.
Finally, what does the EpiPen controversy tell us about handling a PR crisis? First, the debacle reminds us, as public relations practitioners, to stay up to date and conscious of the public’s opinion and needs. If Mylan had been more aware and concerned with dissenting public opinions surrounding its company, it could have taken preemptive measures and avoided the entire catastrophe. Secondly, Mylan could have evaluated the negative feedback immediately following the pricing announcement and taken curative action instead of offering a semi-apology and semi-solution.
I am thankful that Mylan manufactures a product that quite literally is “a life saver” and has saved my life on multiple occasions. I am thankful that my family has health insurance, and that regardless of bogus inflation rates, I can afford EpiPens. But what if we couldn’t? What if I had to pay $600 for one single pen every year? EpiPens expire and get lost.
For these reasons, I’m thankful for the power of social media and public relations. I’m thankful that these platforms can and do drive social change, and I’m thankful that every person who needs an EpiPen will one day be able to afford it.
By Kirby Tifverman, General PRSSA Member