Monday, March 16, 2020

GaxoSmithKline's media liaison nightmare

Dear readers,
This is something Emma
Walmsley CEO of GSK should
be told about. But does she concern
herself with bad public relations
 in the far flung corners of her empire
          GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is a giant London based multinational that is the world’s sixth largest pharmaceutical company. But if my experience is any yardstick its public relations must rank somewhere near the bottom. The way it dealt with my media inquiries was tailor made for getting the wrong end of the stick into print.
          Its Aquafresh toothpaste advertisement on South Africa’s DStv had a cartoon like character in the red, white and blue stripes that is characteristic of this brand tapping the side of a tooth. He told us he could “strengthen the enamel.”
          I found this hard to believe so I tried to get GSK Consumer Healthcare in South Africa to back this claim with scientific evidence. Over a period of about three weeks I phoned its Johannesburg office repeatedly in an attempt to speak to the General Manager Kimberley Hunt. The woman on the switchboard told me I had to go through her PA Marie Visser if I wanted Hunt’s email address.
Kimberley Hunt
          At Visser’s extension I always got an automatic reply and leaving a message was useless because she never came back to me.
          As my efforts to get an explanation to allay my concerns proved fruitless I wrote a post (How true are TV ads) questioning the validity of this ad. I also complained to South Africa’s Advertising Regulatory Board (ARB) that GSK was not able to substantiate its claim that Aquafresh “strengthen enamel.”
          My complaint was dismissed because GSK satisfied the Board that Aquafresh contained fluoride which was well known to strengthen teeth.
          Another aspect of GSK’s advertising on DStv that aroused my suspicion was also for toothpaste. Two different United Kingdom dentists appeared in separate ads extolling the virtues of Sensodyne. They were Doctors Hiten Pankhania and Ojo Olumide. Olumide told us that this “actually goes inside the tooth and calms the nerve.”
          As there had been a case of an actor being used in ads of this kind I searched the U.K.’s General Dental Council’s Register and neither of these two appeared to be listed. So this is how my inquiries went from then onwards.
5 Feb 2020: I emailed Marie Visser asking for Hunt’s email address. I told her I was a freelance journalist and I emphasised that I had been taken to task for not getting the correct information from GSK when I wrote my post about Aquafresh so, as I was about to write another one, I wanted to make absolutely sure that I contacted the correct person this time.
10 Feb: I received this email from Virginia Msebenzi GSK’s Legal Director, South and Southern Africa based in the Johannesburg office.“Direct your query to myself and I will request the relevant stakeholders for input. All our rights are fully reserved", was
Virginia Msebenzi
her ominous parting shot. The same day I  replied naming the dentists and asking her if they were perhaps actors as they did not appear to be registered in Britain. "I find it surprising," I told her,"that a company the size of GSK appears to have nobody in its Johannesburg office who is mandated to deal with media inquiries and that mine is of such magnitude that it gets passed to you as the Legal Director."
17 Feb: Msebenzi answered saying that they did have a team that dealt with media inquiries and these should be “channelled through Simphiwe Otto, copied.” She would contact their marketing team about my dentist query and “revert as soon as I receive their response.” I never heard from her again.
27 Feb: Otto, the Communications Co-ordinator, gave me two verbal undertakings on the phone that he would answer my questions by email on specific days and on both 
occasions he failed to do this. Determined to pin him down I sent him an email telling him that if I did not hear from him by the following day I would go ahead with the post I intended writing about the dentists and his company must not complain that I had failed to get its side of the story.
8 March: I received an email from Olesya Leontyeva head of Communications and Government Affairs based in Russia of all places. She began by telling me how “Consumer feedback is a valuable part of our business, and we appreciate your interest and inputs for our advertorials.” She assured me that all the dentists in 
Olesya Leontyeva
the ads were “real dentists speaking in interviews that were not prescribed.” British dentists, she explained, were used because the South Africa Health Professions Council does not allow its members to appear in ads. She then gave me the UK registration number of the dentists concerned. It seems I drew a blank when I entered their names into the register because their names in the ads were not their full names. After outlining the difficulties I had in getting information out of their Johannesburg office I told her that their own staff was making inquiries like mine into dubious mysteries by taking forever to answer the questions.
“Had I been a newspaper journalist I would have had to meet a deadline ages ago,” I told her.  “I’m really sad you had such experience communicating with our office in South Africa,” she replied.
Jon, an exceptionally dogged Consumer Watchdog.
P.S. It obviously can’t do anything to enhance GSK’s reputation to have a Legal Director and a Communication Co-ordinator making undertakings to a journalist which neither of them kept. It also reaches a sky high level of absurdity when a Communications head in Moscow ends up answering a journalist’s questions when nobody in Johannesburg is prepared or allowed to do it. Emma Walmsley this sort of thing is unlikely to reach you in your lofty position as CEO of GSK, but it looks as though you are the only person who can cure this media farce because nobody below you is doing anything about it.

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