Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Business

Working for 'the most hated man in America'

He's been called the most hated man in America, harangued by presidential candidates, spoofed by Saturday Night Live and called out by members of Congress demanding details about his pharmaceutical company's business practices.

It's no fun being Martin Shkreli.

It's no picnic working for him either, as those who are managing Turing Pharmaceuticals' public perception crisis in Washington and beyond can attest.

"If you could see the emails and phone calls I got, being associated with Turing — they're vicious, hateful, in bucketfuls," said Allan Ripp, a spokesman for Turing since the company's launch in February. " 'You scumbag, pig.' You can't help but have an existential crisis and ask, 'Am I doing the right thing?' "

Shkreli, Turing's chief executive, became public enemy No. 1 last month after his company raised the price of the drug Daraprim, which is used to treat parasitic infections in patients who suffer from diseases such as AIDS/HIV and cancer, from $13.50 a tablet to $750 — a decision he later rescinded, though he did not specify a new price.

He quickly became the face of corporate greed and his initial tone deaf response threw more gasoline on his public relations bonfire.

The job of cleaning up the mess is now in the hands of Shkreli's communications staff and his Washington operatives.

Ripp, who runs a public relations firm in New York representing corporations and law firms, says he is confident in his decision to work with Shkreli and his company. The same cannot be said of Craig Rothenberg, Turing's chief communication officer and a longtime Johnson & Johnson executive, who stepped down shortly after the controversy over Daraprim erupted.

Ripp said Turing has been misunderstood and vilified — understandably so, he concedes, given how swiftly the news snowballed on the Internet and social media — but that Turing's leaders are committed to developing life-saving drugs, investing in research to improve their formulation and treating a wider population of patients.

Daraprim is the only FDA-approved treatment for toxoplasmosis, an infection that can be life-threatening for people with weakened immune systems such as AIDS and cancer patients. Turing acquired Daraprim in August for $55 million. Shkreli initially defended the decision to hike the price of the drug, saying the profits could be reinvested into research to develop new treatments, but later reversed course.

Turing is not the first or only pharmaceutical company to face scrutiny for raising the price of drugs. Lawmakers are also pressing Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to issue a subpoena to Valeant Pharmaceuticals, which this year spiked the price of medications treating heart conditions.

Still, the anger directed at Shkreli sets him apart.

"There's now a built-in assumption that you have a wifebeater. … This company had zero reputation, zero track record," Ripp said, noting Turing was not well known until the recent controversy. "You can't regain control of your image, you can ask for patience and distance to show this company intends to do the right thing in the way it develops drugs. That's going to take some time."

And with members of Congress and presidential candidates now showing an interest in Turing, the company has enlisted the aid of Washington lobbyists.

It has hired four lobbyists at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, a Pittsburgh-based law firm with about 50 attorneys and lobbyists in Washington, in part to deal with inquiries from Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who have asked the company to provide details about its finances and price-setting practices

Ingersoll & Rooney has team of veteran health care lobbyists well versed in drug pricing issues.

A spokeswoman for Buchanan Ingersoll referred questions about Turing to Ripp.

"The company feels it's in extremely good hands and experienced hands, and is comfortable it made the right choice and has the right partner," Ripp said of the lobbyists.

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