Novartis CEO Offers Courage, Vision and Leadership
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Novartis CEO Offers Courage, Vision and Leadership

Holmes Report

Program Description

When the recession showed no signs of abating in early 2009, an ominous wave of change swept across the pharmaceutical industry. Left and right, companies rushed to negotiate mergers and acquisitions in an effort to cut their costs, fill their pipelines and strike deals while the iron was hot. Adding to the chaos, the industry was contending with mass layoffs, patent expirations and intense scrutiny from the political arena, particularly as health reform rose to the top of the national agenda. It was a “take no prisoners” vibration throughout the industry and one by one, companies began to feel the unprecedented, intense pressure.


With the media continually buzzing about pharma’s woes, Novartis CEO Dr. Dan Vasella and his leadership team wanted to ensure that the company’s innovative strategy and broad portfolio stood out and apart from the generally negative industry coverage. Recognizing that strong leadership is critical to maintaining stakeholder confidence in uncertain times, Novartis charged Ruder Finn (RF) to leverage Dr. Vasella’s more than 13 years of CEO experience and long-standing thought leadership status. The goal was to communicate in preemptive ways with investors and employees that unlike its competitors, Novartis is well-positioned to weather storms of all kinds, including the current economic one. Implicitly drawing a contrast between Novartis and other pharmaceutical companies, RF set out not only to maintain but also to increase favorable coverage of Novartis by embarking on a carefully orchestrated communications strategy. This would encompass a well-crafted strategic program of high-visibility interviews, speaking opportunities and inclusion in media rankings for Dr. Vasella, further anchoring his thought leadership position in the pharmaceutical industry and conveying a sense of stability for his company in an environment of severe industry and financial turmoil.



For RF, the challenge was to separate Novartis from the barrage of negative industry coverage and enhance Dr. Vasella’s positive reputation as a thought leader in national top-tier and predominantly pharma trade media. Because Novartis too had to contend with the public’s negative perception of the pharmaceutical industry, RF needed to make certain the prevailing mood in the media would not divert attention from Novartis’ promising pipeline, innovative strategy and strong financial performance. Most importantly, RF’s challenge was to further establish Dr. Vasella as a thoughtful, visionary constant in a capricious industry and rollercoaster economy, and to ensure all of Novartis’ stakeholders remained confident.


Research and Planning

First, RF audited all national top-tier outlets to identify profile opportunities for Dr. Vasella. Before conducting proactive outreach, RF developed a highly-detailed matrix of targeted outlets by researching and analyzing how these media had covered Dr. Vasella’s peers. In addition to profiles, RF wanted to increase Dr. Vasella’s thought leadership status. To heighten his visibility and establish Dr. Vasella’s reputation among business elites, RF identified high-profile speaking opportunities and other events that provided key forums for communicating Novartis’ patient-centric business strategy and innovative R&D. Lastly, RF researched relevant media rankings and evaluated “best-of” lists to create a strategic plan of engagement to further ensure Dr. Vasella’s inclusion in the group of pharma and business elites. This media exposure, carefully timed and well-executed, would serve to highlight Dr. Vasella, as well as significantly differentiate Novartis’ business strategies and achievements from competitors.


Strategic Approach

RF worked closely with Novartis to shape Dr. Vasella’s platform, which centered around key themes including strong financial performance, innovation, leadership and access to medicine. By leveraging this solid strategic platform, RF could increase Dr. Vasella’s appeal not only to pharma and business-focused reporters, but also to top-tier policy, health and humanitarian reporters.


The goals were clear: (1) analyze, evaluate and leverage Novartis’ newsflow to secure high-visibility, top-tier and trade features for Dr. Vasella in which he could carefully elucidate the company’s strategies to succeed in an ever-changing market; (2) enhance Dr. Vasella’s  thought leadership status by positioning him among business elites at select high-visibility conferences and events; and (3) secure Novartis’ presence in “best of” lists in relevant media that would prove advantageous to the company.


Campaign Execution

RF seized the opportunity to utilize Dr. Vasella’s extraordinary management talent to communicate Novartis’ achievements and convey a sense of stability in a turbulent industry. Through collaboration with executives and associates throughout Novartis AG, RF identified, evaluated and recommended key milestones that could be leveraged for outreach. Example milestones included quarterly earnings announcements, regulatory milestones and product launches, strategic partnerships and news on research practices and facilities. Surrounding these announcements, RF conducted aggressive outreach to facilitate access to and interviews with Dr. Vasella – one of the world’s top business leaders. Once interviews were confirmed, RF crafted detailed briefing materials to ensure that Novartis’ key messages were conveyed.


RF further researched and drew on industry trends of interest to the media and responded to timely news events by offering access to Dr. Vasella to comment on important issues like swine flu, healthcare reform and talent development. This effort helped reinforce his thought leadership beyond the pharma industry, and showcased him in a highly favorable light in the broader business environment. RF also analyzed, recommended and coordinated participation in speaking opportunities at high-level events such as The Wall Street Journal CEO Council to bolster Dr. Vasella’s position as a global business leader. Lastly, RF submitted Novartis and Dr. Vasella for prestigious media rankings and “best of” lists.


Summary of Results

By the end of 2009, RF had successfully garnered coverage that highlighted all of the major themes, coordinated several high-level speaking opportunities for Dr. Vasella, and secured the inclusion of Dr. Vasella and Novartis in key media rankings: 

·      Feature stories: More than 40 interviews with Dr. Vasella were orchestrated and managed by RF. The result: high-visibility placements that ensured Novartis’ key messages were seen by critical target audiences:

o  Top-Tier: On June 22, Dr. Vasella appeared on the cover of BusinessWeek. The culmination of a year’s work, the cover story profiled Dr. Vasella as a bold and forward-thinking leader who “took a calculated risk and turned Novartis’ R&D model upside down.” On March 9, a TIME Magazine article discussed Dr. Vasella’s decision to further reduce the price of Coartem, an antimalarial drug, in the developing world because he felt “‘it was our responsibility to be engaged.’” On March 26, the Financial Times featured an article on a roundtable discussion on healthcare in which Dr. Vasella shared his thoughts on the impact of technology, the importance of focusing on patient needs, and the pressures facing healthcare spending. On May 1, Dr. Vasella appeared on CNBC’s “Healthy Horizons,” during which he discussed how Novartis was able to increase R&D at a time when other pharmaceutical companies were cutting such spending. In July, McKinsey Quarterly kicked off its video interview series “Conversations with Global Leaders” with Dr. Vasella, emphasizing his personal approach to management and highlighting his perspective on pressing issues like healthcare reform. On August 6, Barron’s cited the development of new drugs, expanded sales, increased focus on emerging markets and Dr. Vasella’s efforts to cut costs as reasons why the company’s stock is a compelling choice for investors.

o  Trade: In October, Pharmaceutical Executive featured Dr. Vasella in a cover story, hailing him as “the industry’s lord of innovation” and “an enduring visionary.” That same month, MedAd News named Novartis “Most Admired Pharmaceutical Company,” emphasizing the ambition and integrity of the management team in addition to the company’s strong financial performance. In July/August, a special issue of PharmaVOICE counted Dr. Vasella among the “100 Most Inspiring People,” noting “his strategic vision has transformed the Novartis portfolio… to meet the full spectrum of patient needs, setting a new model the industry has since followed.” In November/December, a PharmaVOICE article featured Dr. Vasella’s view that the U.S. government should enhance prevention programs and implement tort reform to achieve cost-effective healthcare.

o  In addition, RF scheduled several high-visibility interviews for which coverage is still pending. These include Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal “Lessons in Leadership” video series, The Wall Street Journal “Boss Talk” column, The Washington Post “On Leadership” video series, USA Today’s “Advice from the Top” column, Institutional Investor, and The New Yorker “Balance Sheet” blog.

·      Thought leadership opportunities: In January, RF coordinated Dr. Vasella’s participation in the World Economic Forum, where he lent his expertise to a panel discussion on how public-private partnerships can support malaria prevention efforts. In April, Dr. Vasella shared his perspective on the Obama administration’s health reform plan and explained what Novartis is doing to curb costs during the recession at the World Health Care Congress. In October, RF leveraged Novartis’ long-standing emphasis on innovation and leadership position in research and development to secure a speaking opportunity for Dr. Vasella at the Cleveland Clinic’s 2009 Medical Innovation Summit. On November 16-17, Dr. Vasella served as a healthcare task force co-chair for the second consecutive year at The Wall Street Journal CEO Council, where his input was used to develop priorities for business and government. 

·      Media recognition: Due to RF’s research, analysis and orchestration of participation, Institutional Investor named Dr. Vasella Europe’s top pharmaceutical CEO, PharmaVOICE recognized him as one of the “100 Most Inspiring People,” and CNBC’s Dennis Kneale hailed him as a “Hero of Capitalism.” In addition to individual awards, Scrip recognized Novartis’ Executive Committee as the “Management Team of the Year,” MedAd News named Novartis the “Most Admired Pharmaceutical Company,” FORTUNE ranked Novartis in the top two “World’s Most Admired Companies” in the pharmaceutical industry, Ethisphere included Novartis in the top four “World’s Most Ethical Companies” in the biotech and pharma category, and DiversityInc ranked Novartis among the “Top 50 Companies for Diversity.” All rankings cite Dr. Vasella’s strong leadership or personal integrity as reasons for the company’s inclusion on these prestigious lists.

·      Novartis’ financial performance: Novartis has delivered a strong performance in 2009, with net sales growing 8 percent in local currencies over the first three quarters. Novartis stock price has risen almost 15 percent over the last year, and in the last six months, the share price has increased 35 percent, significantly outperforming both the DJIA and the Dow Jones Pharmaceuticals Index.


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