Sanofi wins kudos for airing bribery probe. Phase II? Take to social media

Last week, Sanofi ($SNY) said it stepped forward with overseas bribery allegations in the U.S.: The French drugmaker told the feds it had hired an outside law firm to dive into an anonymous whistleblower's accusations of corruption in the Middle East. But the company's proactive approach may not be enough to block a blow to its reputation, experts say.

For one thing, Sanofi is joining a parade of drugmakers fielding bribery allegations, and that in itself could hurt. As Carreen Winters, EVP and global corporate reputation practice leader at crisis communications firm MWW, told The Wall Street Journal, "guilt by association" with its Big Pharma peers may be enough to condemn Sanofi in the court of public opinion.

"The bad news for Sanofi is that other pharmaceuticals [companies], including GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis, have also faced similar bribery charges … And that's where Sanofi's real challenge lies," she said.

Indeed, pharma's image has taken a hit since last year, when Glaxo ($GSK) went up against claims of a $489 million bribery scheme in China. A host of other companies--Sanofi included--went on to face bribery allegations from whistleblowers in the country.

Shannon Wilkinson

But this time, Sanofi also did a few things right--including voluntarily informing authorities right away, Reputation Communications CEO Shannon Wilkinson told the Journal.

"Sanofi avoided an online hornet's nest," she said. "Imagine the fallout if hashtag activists, the media or watchdog groups had learned about them first.

"In similar cases with other pharmaceutical companies, the headlines have charged 'corruption.' These headlines focus on the actions Sanofi is taking to rectify the situation. As a result, Sanofi 'owns' the story."

But if the issue--or the media focus on the issue--escalates, the pharma giant will have more work to do. In that case, the company should consider posting investigation updates on its Twitter feed, or perhaps publish a short video of CEO Chris Viehbacher addressing the situation, she said.

- read the WSJ story (sub. req.)

Special Reports: Top 10 drugmakers in emerging markets - Sanofi | The top 10 pharma companies by 2013 revenue - Sanofi