Thank you, Ken Frazier, for a mission impossible: Making pharma look good

American Manufacturing Council, Trump, Merck, Frazier
The resignation of Merck CEO Ken Frazier, seen here with President Donald Trump during his time on the manufacturing council, has generated goodwill for Frazier, his company and the pharma industry.

The pharma industry owes Merck CEO Ken Frazier a thank-you note. His resignation from President Donald Trump’s manufacturing council has resonated positively across the spectrum of healthcare consumers, as well with a broader mainstream audience.

More than 50,000 people liked Frazier’s tweet announcing his resignation from the president’s American Manufacturing Council after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the president’s ensuing tepid denouncement. Frazier’s statement concluded with, “As CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.”

Gratitude to Frazier poured in across Twitter and other social media even as two other CEOs, Under Armour’s Kevin Plank and Intel’s Brian Krzanich, also resigned. The exodus, along with critical comments from other business leaders on the council, led to President Trump disbanding the group. Even the president's response tweet, in which he criticized pharma drug prices, didn't seem to stem the overall tide of praise.

“This is a very risky thing for a CEO of a major corporation to do, to cross the U.S. president. But it’s had tremendously positive support, in my opinion, from most of the patient community that they serve,” said Jack Barrette, CEO of WeGo Health. “Hopefully it serves to embolden the rest of the pharma industry and Merck to continue to step out and be leaders. To show that they are leaders in every way, not just in making the best drugs, but as leaders at a national level.”

Barrette informally surveyed some of the patient leaders in the WeGo community and got resoundingly positive feedback. Even the advocates who disagreed with him—believing that he should have stayed on the council to try to effect change for the industry—were still impressed by Frazier taking a principled stand.

“The general sentiment was that it was heartening to see a pharmaceutical CEO take a moral stance and that maybe isn’t always associated with the industry,” he said.

Other groups in the industry also seemed to take a positive view of Frazier's stand. Business Insider reported that a BMO Capital analysts' note reported on its conversation with investors concluding that "most respect Mr. Frazier's decision. Clearly, other business leaders are arriving at a similar conclusion and acting accordingly."

However, Frazier’s stand may not resonate with every consumer, and the positive industry bump may not last long.

Bob Ehrlich, CEO of DTC Perspectives, said via email, “This is one of those issues that is very tough to determine the effects. In general, I think pharma executives should comment on whatever issues they think are relevant to improving healthcare,” although he added that he doesn’t think Frazier' s resignation will have a long-term positive impact on the drug industry or Merck.

“He was one of several CEOs to resign and I doubt the public will react in terms of company or industry reputation. Those who dislike the drug industry are not going to change their views based on this resignation,” Ehrlich said.