Talk about a public relations lesson in what not to do. Bad-boy pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli has been called a “world-class jerk,” “brat businessman” and “most punchable” — and those were just the printable things in an hour on Twitter.
Shkreli has become a public villain of cartoonish proportions. It started when, as CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, he approved a 5000% price increase for a little-used drug. But things went downhill fast due to the outrageous way he handled his newfound visibility.
The truth about the Shkreli affair is that pharmaceutical pricing, and, in particular, price increases as a source of profits, are more complicated than they seem. Shkreli’s not the first or the only CEO to do this, although he may be the boldest. Matthew Herper’s coverage in Forbes actually sheds light on the bigger picture in a way that the “pharma bro” tabloid stuff doesn’t. It’s well worth a read.
But to get back to the optics, Shkreli is a poster boy for how to attract coverage – but not the kind you want. Here’s what the average PR professional – or entrepreneur – can take away from his image meltdown. If you want to follow Shkreli in committing reputation suicide, these are the steps.
Don’t admit any wrongdoing
In fairness, Shkreli offered a coherent (if not very convincing) defense of the price increase strategy in early interviews, and one wouldn’t expect him to back off completely from his position. It’s not a crime to make a profit. But as things deteriorated, he turned defensive and arrogant, digging himself in more deeply. That posture might work for, say, Donald Trump, who has a business and television track record to fall back on, but in 99% of cases, it’s a disaster. When Shkreli told Herper, “I wish I had raised the price more,” at a healthcare forum, it sounded deliberately provocative.
Flaunt your disrespect
In Shkreli’s case, that includes legislators like the members of the Congressional panel who called him to a hearing on drug prices even knowing that he would take the Fifth Amendment. Sure, it was an opportunity for House members to grandstand, and they’re not the most sophisticated characters when it comes to how pharmaceutical pricing works. But Shkreli needn’t have flaunted his contempt. His yawns, smirks, and eye-rolls were catnip to critics. Calling the House members “imbeciles” on Twitter was the final, self-destructive flourish, as if Shkreli craves attention at any cost.
Don’t listen to professionals
Shkreli has shown an almost pathological tendency to flout advice and take his own counsel. His social media rants, extravagant personal spending, and braggadocio are obviously not smart for someone who’s been indicted. The charges aren’t related to his time at Turing, but they exacerbate the optics problem. Shkreli’s newly hired lawyer reportedly agreed to represent him on the condition that he stop speaking to the press, so maybe his days of shooting from the hip are over.
The interesting thing about Shkreli’s notoriety is that he’s bright, media-savvy, and in a perfect position to educate us about drug pricing. If he chose to do so, he could be a powerful voice for reform, both of his own image and of the convoluted healthcare and pharma pricing system. But no one’s counting on that any time soon.