Organizational Uncommon Sense

Two recent news stories in Pennsylvania demonstrate how very difficult it is for an organization to impose its version of reality on the public and the news media if it runs against the common sense reality of the situation. 

As reported in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mylan Inc., a generic drug maker, and its chief executive officer, Robert Coury, have said repeatedly that a Federal Drug Administration (FDA) investigation into manufacturing procedures has been completed, even as the FDA has repeatedly said that the investigation is not over yet.  (I should disclose that Jampole Communications worked on a project for Mr. Coury more than 10 years ago when he was a financial planner.) The investigation follows a July 26 Post-Gazette report that Mylan employees had overridden automated quality control mechanisms and falsified reports.

Based on my experience helping companies communicate about investigations by the FDA, OSHA, EPA, state consumer bureaus and other government agencies in a large number of states, I believe that I can construct a scenario in which Coury and Mylan may have inadvertently come to believe that the investigation was over.  For example, perhaps an on-site inspector made some comments to company officials or maybe they saw a preliminary report or recommendation. 

But once the FDA said the first time that the investigation was not over (see July 28 story in the Post-Gazette), Mylan should have backtracked, and said that Coury misspoke or that had meant that the FDA had completed the inspection part of the process.  By digging in its corporate heels, Mylan has lost a great deal of credibility with anyone who has read or heard the continuing news stories on this issue.  And Mylan has kept the story in the media: The coverage of most inspection and inspection violations typically make one or at the most two 24-hour news cycles. By repeatedly contradicting the FDA, Mylan has kept what is basically a bad news story for the company in the news.

The other recent Pennsylvania example of an organization trying but failing to run against the grain of common sense is a bit subtler.  In a news release on July 17, the Pennsylvania Insurance Department (PID) said it was launching an investigation of the state Blues.  As many people know, there is less competition for health care insurance in Pennsylvania than virtually anywhere else in the U.S.  The investigation is part of PID’s recent efforts to bring more competition to health care insurance in the state.

Only the commission didn’t call it an “investigation,” but used the term “examination.”  In fact it repeated “examination” twelve times!  It’s as if the commission was going out of its way to say it was not conducting an investigation, which always has negative connotations.  The problem is that to most people, the use of examination in this context is just a squeamish way of saying “investigation.”  And that’s how the major media saw it as well.  The Philadelphia Inquirer, Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh/Greensburg Tribune Review all called it an investigation.

Anytime an organization goes against the common sense definition of a word, it risks losing credibility or losing control of the information it gives the public.  For the PID, the way around this challenge would have been to define your terms right up front, for example, “examination is a standard insurance term that describes…..” If the PID had explicitly told us why they were calling it an examination instead of an investigation in the second paragraph of the news release, then all stories would have called it an examination, many also including the definition.