What Does Merck Do When an Ex Director Becomes Patient Advocate?

Ron Callari, writing for InventorSpot, covered the top 10 pharmaceutical companies enaged in social media. I couldn’t help but be amused by this quote about me:

… has a personality that overshadows the company’s online presence… While damaging the brand ‘by association’, Nalty quit Merck to become a micro-celeb of sorts and a social media consultant.

I hadn’t considered the fact that perhaps my own online presence rivals, if not overshadows Merck’s. While Gardasil and other brands have significant online presence… most of it’s paid media. My videos are viewed more than 250,000 times daily, and I’d venture that’s collectively more time than consumers spend engaging with Merck websites (although I’m not sure about some of the physician activity).

Ironically, this week I’ve probably done more for Propecia, my former brand, than through many of my highly regulated and legally scrutinized marketing efforts of past years. In the past 2 weeks:

  • I got a hair transplant, broadcasted it live to thousands, showed off highlights to 84,000 people (to date) through a two part (see part one and two) video chronicle of my hair adventure. These videos are among the top most-viewed and highest-rated comedies of the week, which isn’t quite typical of something medical. My hope is they can help destigmatize being concerned about, and treating, hairloss.
  • I’ve got an active blog (www.hairofnalts.com), where I can say what I want, without extended meetings debating the difference between the word “save” and “preserve.”
  • I bought my Propecia Propak for full retail price, and didn’t even bother enrolling in the discount program.
  • Last night I appeared on XM Radio’s “The Bald Truth” with my surgeon (Alan Bauman) and the most passionate advocate for hairloss treatment (Spencer Kobren, the show’s host).
  • YouTube and Google searches are beginning to show my videos higher on results for various terms (transplant, fue, hairloss), in what’s a fairly competitive category.

Propecia the Crack Whore is still on the first page of YouTube’s search results for the word Propecia (not ideal considering  YouTube remains the number 2 search engine after Google). If I did a video titled Propecia, mine would likely become the first result.

Having spent 3 years at Merck, I predict they’re not reacting as I would if a brand alumnus turned patient advocate. I’d be thrilled! The FDA can’t mediate a former employee’s efforts to educate people about a largely missunderstood disease state. And of course I’m being very careful about what I say about Propecia… keeping my statements as objective as possible, and positive.

Yet Merck is, no doubt, terrified. Is Nalts vioating any responsibilities (confidentiality or otherwise)? Nope. Is he a liability? Hardly. Will he embarass us? Of course not. How do we distance ourselves from this? Don’t worry. I know you can’t touch this with a 10-foot poll. I’m more likely to get sponsored by PETA.

But I’ve learned a few things in through this experience. The consumer advocate or passionate physician has none of the constraints of a drug manufacturer. And I do believe that pharmaceutical firms will find ways to appropriately activate brand champions and evangelists without being liable for everything they say. It’s more effective than advertising, and far more credible and trusted.

It just needs to be done with transparency and appropriate intent (disease-state awareness as opposed to pushing unbalanced messages or unsubstantiated product claims).  There are easier short-term ways pharma brands can engage patients than this (stay tuned for a Nalts Consulting white  paper showing these), but there will come a day where drug firms cultivate relationships with patient “key opinion leaders” with a clear understanding of what’s black, white and gray.

In fact tomorrow I speak to senior marketing leaders at a major pharmaceutical firm about the ways they can tap social media by maximizing impact and minimizing risk (based on a number of brand/market conditions that set the social-media strategy). There’s not a cynic that can attend that can toss me a curve ball I’ve not seen.

My understanding is that my Merck departure heightened senior executive’s attention to social media, and raised fundamental issues about what’s legal (and even what’s effective). Perhaps my greatest contribution to get Merck engaged in innovative new media (a battle I fought routinely as an extracurricular to marketing Propecia) was my departure!

15 Replies to “What Does Merck Do When an Ex Director Becomes Patient Advocate?”

  1. Today marks my one month anniversary here at the dorm for prognathos-jawed men. One month. Seems a lot longer. Already the Arco gas station I used to work at and the Arconians I used to work with seem dreary, tepid memories.

    It’s funny. At the Arco, I had to deal with all sorts of creeps, crackheads and felons . . . as customers. Now, here at the vets’ dorm, I’m living with them.

    No, that’s not quite right. At the Arco it was current, active duty creeps, crackheads and felons. Here at the dorm, it’s recovering, ex-crackheads. It’s much better here. Here is where all the lone wolves like me, the military ones, form a pack.

    The guy sitting next to me right now, Mike, a friendly, fiftyish gentleman whose gray goatee makes him look a little like a gentle, kindly Lenin (the Russian, not John), just got back from court today. He finally got the last expungement he needed completed. He had cut open some guy who had pissed him off and pulled the guy’s intestines out and THEN started stompin the dude . . . ten, fifteen years ago and today he finally got that taken off his jacket.

    That was his last offense. His FIRST offense after coming back from Nam was opening up a bar bouncer’s neck. That one was expunged a couple of years ago.

    Mike gave me this information this morning as we were smoking cigarettes together in the alley behind the dorm. He said it in a kind of matter of fact, yet ‘aw shucks, wasn’t I kinda stupid?’ way . . . the way REAL trained killers talk. Not bragging. Not acting tough. Just ‘it was what it was and I paid for it, so what?’ low key kind of way.

    One month. Hmph. Doesn’t feel like I’ve accomplished much. The chaplan’s got his eye on me. He may have caught a whiff of The White Rhino or Chollo Jook or The Bear or Ironweed and he’s tallying up the personalities in my head . . . maybe.

    One of the big muckety mucks, a woman who appears to be several rungs up the food chain from my case worker ( who reports to my case manager who reports up to someone who reports up until it gets to her ) . . . has started calling me “Professor” when she sees me in the hallway. THAT sounds like trouble. Hmmm. Maybe she’s . . . ah, the computer room monitor has called ‘Time’. Gotta sign off. We only get certain select hours on the computers here.

    —When Lone Wolves Form A Pack
    from my Offline Journal

  2. I’m not a big fan of Big Pharm – I understand people who work for these companies have to make a living, my issue with most companies are more about the higher ups and their big fat salaries (Merck CEO Richard Clark’s made $24M in 07), over critical medicines Americans need and can il-afford.

    But the fact is I never even herad of propecia until you brought it up.
    Didn’t even think much about hair loss, probably know more about it now than I ever wanted to. So you’re correct about the impact of social media and what you’ve contributed to the brand by speaking about your own hair loss experiences. I suspect, outside of a few uptight management types battling anal leakage most over at Merck are high fiving each other for the attention you’ve brought them.

    Of course they can’t publicly admit that, wouldn’t appear dignified because the government expects them to be dignified and court judges expect them to be dignified and people like me who would post a CEO’s outrageous salary and accuse a few management types of having anal leakage freely on social networking sites is the double edge sword which is what they worry about most in the online world. Well, that and keeping their site up and running.

    HOWEVER, someone who is desperately looking for a hair loss remedy is going to get past what I say and find out more about the product and that makes for a happy company; until there’s a law suit for unexpected or hidden complications.

    Still, knowledge is power and if you are a happy customer and express that joy someone else out there is going hear or read about the brand that brought you joy, it’s the ultimate word of mouth.

    The more entertaining you make it the longer you keep an audience. The more distant you are from the corporation that makes the product the more people will trust your judgment and what every corporation has to contend with in our modern society, what’s sorely lacking between the product maker and the people who buy is trust.

    In this crappy economy they can’t rely on impulse buying anymore whether the product is good or bad they are going to have to learn and find ways to nurture social media.

  3. Holy Schmoly, you been busy this past weekend! It all snuck up on me because I was busy getting married.

    My only question is, are you MONETIZING any of this? (Jo asked me to say that.)

  4. Can anyone ever enforce a non-compete when it comes to male pattern baldness? I mean really. You must refrain from any online activity that may cause conflict between the perception that a Merck product is somehow less effective than say…oh I don’t know …eerrr banging your head against the wall??

  5. @6 – so far, splendidly! Thank you, @8.

    Nothing so far about monetizing. I hope he gets some sort of advance on that book he keeps saying Wiley is publishing. Not that I expect any self-respecting unemployed, er, consultant to disclose their income.

  6. Our family is back! This post is like a secret meeting of the WVFF back row. Poetic recounts from Marquis, Dahliak gets hitched!?

    HEY- how do I get an advance for sure? They gave me the go ahead today, but no terms discussed. I need an advance to cover the time I’d otherwise spend pitching business that doesn’t amount to actual revenue. Marquis- you got room for another? BYOC.


  7. It sounds like you have the go-ahead to write a book on spec, Kevin. I’ve told you before you need a sales partner… call it agent, maybe. You do the creative, they hammer out the terms. Is Jo any good at sales? What about BSoN? (Is she still around, btw?)

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