Business must change to earn back the public’s trust
— Jeff Kindler is the chairman and CEO of Pfizer. He has agreed to reply to readers’ responses about this opinion piece. The views expressed are his own. —
While it’s encouraging that slightly more people say they trust business and government today than a year ago, surveys show more than 70 percent of Americans and Europeans fear companies and governments will return to business as usual once the recession ends. It’s easy to see why.
In just the past year, a UK accounting scandal forced out the Speaker of the House of Commons, for the first time since 1695. The Governor of Illinois was thrown out of office for influence peddling, and a Congressman was convicted of accepting bribes and storing the cash in his freezer.
Businesses haven’t done any better, from taking reckless risks with other people’s money, to Ponzi schemes, to insider trading. Many banks and automakers now owe their existence to taxpayers, who bailed them out then paid them bonuses. My own company paid a $1.8 billion fine after some of our sales people improperly promoted a medicine for uses the FDA hadn’t authorized.
Actions like these are leading people to demand more restrictions on business. People say banks should risk less, and pay their executives less. They want oil companies to drill less, and burn less. They want drug companies to charge less, but not do less R&D. Sometimes, this criticism is warranted. Sometimes, it’s not. But when people don’t trust you, they’ll find a way to force you to change.
If leaders fail to change, the shape of things to come will not be pretty, for companies or for society. And if any business or government leader thinks they’re exempt, they are wrong.
If we fail to change, then the real and legitimate anger that people around the world are feeling will lead to policy changes that could damage our competitiveness. Over time, it will mean lost opportunities for the private sector innovation that can create jobs and rebuild the economy.
It will take a lot of time and energy to earn and maintain public trust. We have to start by letting people know, “we hear you.” This new era of responsibility starts with acknowledging where we’ve gone wrong, showing that we’re making real changes, and demonstrating that we are willing to work together to address society’s most urgent problems.
At Pfizer, we’ve begun to change. We know we need to be straight with people. No one has any tolerance for corporate spin. So, we’re disclosing more information than ever. People can go to the Web to see how we compensate doctors outside our company, the progress our scientists are making, the results of more than 1,000 trials of experimental new medicines, and the outcomes of studies of medicines that are already on the market.
We’ve changed the way our salespeople interact with physicians. The golf trips are long gone. No more fancy dinners, or tchotchkes left in the doctor’s office. Fewer representatives in the waiting room, more training, and a greater focus on providing up-to-date information about the medicines physicians prescribe.
Meanwhile, we’re doing more to help people who cannot afford our medicines. Seventy percent of the world lives on less than $3,000 a year, according to the World Bank. That’s four billion people. In the past, we’ve reached them through philanthropy. Pfizer has given away 87 million treatments of Zithromax over the past few years to treat the infections that cause blindness in poor countries, for example. This has helped eliminate trachoma, the leading cause of preventable blindness, in many places.
But philanthropy alone isn’t enough anymore. So we’ve also started a new business to expand access to generic medicines. We’ve started another that aims to create a marketplace that’s not dependent on charity, and that will provide people living in the developing world with affordable medicines in a socially responsible and sustainable way.
These are all important changes, but we know we have to do more. So we’ve asked ourselves: How can we uniquely serve the world’s health needs? What can we do that no other company can do? What responsibilities come along with that?
We’ve made a series of commitments to ourselves and to the people we serve. For example, we have committed to advancing wellness, prevention, treatments and cures, because health is one of the most important investments a society can make. It’s time to move beyond simply helping people get better after they get sick. Shouldn’t we help them keep from getting sick in the first place?
Most people try to take care of themselves first, before going to see a doctor. This often means taking over-the-counter medicines for cough and cold, or aches and pains. This usually helps people feel better. It also reduces the burdens on health systems, saving money for all of us. As a society, we have to do more to advance health and wellness at every stage of life.
That’s why we’ve also committed to setting the standard for quality, safety, and the value of medicines. In a global economy, this requires us to combat counterfeit medicines. The World Health Organization estimates that about 30 percent of all prescription drugs on the market are fake. That’s why we partner with the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and customs officials to police the supply of medicines. We do all this because when we ask people to put our medicines in their bodies, people deserve to know that they are safe, that they work, and that they are worth it.
Commitments like these go to the heart of what we do as a biopharmaceutical research company. We know our license to operate depends on doing business with integrity and keeping our commitments.
The stakes are high. We know we will be measured not by what we say, but by what we do. If we don’t do what we say we will, then we’ll lose trust even further. Then we could lose customers or face more legal problems.
This is true for all leaders, whatever industry or public office they’re in. Everyone has a role in earning back trust, even if they didn’t contribute to the problem. It’s up to all of us to do it. Our success, even our survival, depends on it.
If you’d like to question Kindler about this piece, leave a comment below. We’ll put a selection of your questions to him in the coming days and publish his responses in The Great Debate.