Oral Histories

Helen Ostrowski

Interview Segments on Topic: Trust/Credibility

Helen Ostrowski Biography

Helen Ostrowski joined Porter Novelli in 1993 to head the health care group, and has progressed through a variety of positions including general manager of the New York office, head of global practices and key accounts, president of the Americas, and finally, chief executive officer in 2003.  Ostrowski has over 35 years of experience in public relations and has worked closely with CEOs and senior management of companies such as Wyeth, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Gillette.  She is on the Boards of the Council of Public Relations Firms and the Arthur W. Page Society and is a member of the Public Relations Society of America, the Counselor’s Academy, the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association and was named an Inside PR All-Star in health care in 1996.  She is a John W. Hill award winner from PRSA-NY and serves on the Board of Trustees of Roger Williams University.


Interviewer:   Speaking of pharmaceutical companies, you spent many years working with these companies and there seems to be a lack of trust in the United States by our citizens in those large corporations. How did it all come about and has that relationship between the industry and the citizens improved at all?

Ostrowski:   Well, my personal view on this is that when pharmaceutical companies first began, they were really propelled by the age of medicine in the 40’s and 50’s and all the scientific or medical discoveries were coming out. The antibiotics, for example, were one of the first new waves of medicine. Many of the people who worked in the industry were very focused on the doctors and the pharmacists for the most part. There were some regulatory bodies at that time that were important and they grew in importance, obviously, over the succeeding years. But what the industry did not do a very good job of was that it didn’t really reach out to other constituents. As the industry grew, they had more scientific discoveries; they became more profitable; they got bigger; their profits became very strong. Wall Street sat up and took notice. Regulators started paying more attention. Once you get larger, you’re sort of a bigger deal. But when Americans in particular, not just Americans but certainly Americans in particular had to start paying more of the costs that were involved and people started looking at the cost of pharmaceuticals. If they had to pay some more of it, or perhaps they couldn’t get it so easily any longer or whatever the issue might be. So there was much more focus being paid.

I think the long and short of it is, as the industry began to change it did not really focus on building strong relationships and having a dialogue and a relationship with some of these newer groups that it never felt it needed to cultivate. It always said, “The patient is not really the person that we deal with. We deal with the doctors and the pharmacists.” Well, they’re the end user[s] and you better have some sort of understanding of where they’re coming from and a relationship. So I think over a long period of time that relationship, to the extent that it ever existed at all, has been very thin, very fragmented. It’s been very difficult because many pharmaceutical companies have become very firmly entrenched.  Also Wall Street has gotten used to, or at least had gotten used to very healthy profits. Only recently have pharmaceutical companies had to actually start laying people off because the business has suffered. So you have kind of the perfect storm for them, under pressure from Wall Street to deliver on profitability, screaming public and regulators about practices, about pricing, about all sorts of issues.

So I have long felt that the industry has needed to take a completely fresh look and stop hiding behind arguments like, “it costs so much money to develop a new drug.” Yes, it does, but there are reasons why that occurs and there are fundamental issues that the industry probably will need to address over the next twenty years or less, I think, we’re going to see some improvement there. It’s not to say that they haven’t made some improvements already. I think they have, but the basic issue of trust is still an issue.

Interviewer:   Right—in the U.S. public—but does this exist in other countries? The circumstances are different in other countries, but it does exist elsewhere?

Ostrowski:   You’ve begun to see trust issues emerging in the U.K. over the past ten years and in other parts of Europe. You have socialized medicine in a lot of countries and that has been a place where people can hide. But there are issues in marketing practices. They’re more heavily regulated in marketing practices, or have been in Europe, for example. You couldn’t do consumer advertising for the longest time on RX drugs. So again, that’s another factor in the United States. We’ve had that for quite some time so that’s another visibility thing and people look at the cost of the drug; they look at the cost of an ad campaign and they [say], “Well if you could cut out some of your marketing expenses, maybe the drug wouldn’t cost so much.”

So I think that as regulations have started to shift in other countries for better, for worse, you’ve seen some of those changes. I will point out [that] Japan has had a very interesting model. There had been a fair amount of trust in the pharmaceutical industry in that country because they have a very different way of managing industries in Japan. The government sort of gets involved to help—not regulate so much—but all the pharmaceutical companies in Japan don’t chase after the same drug for a blockbuster so you spread out the cost of drug development among fewer entities. So you can argue whether they’re innovative or not; that’s kind of a whole separate issue, but they have had a different model. They also have brought in the public a lot more.

I remember hearing a presentation when I was on a panel with a few people, including the head of the pharmaceutical industry in Japan. He related the fact that in Japan, they frequently would bring in patient groups to come view how the drugs get made, meet some of the people who are behind them, and creating a relationship that we never really had in a lot of countries, and particularly the United States. So I think you see variations across the world. The fact of the matter is [that] pharmaceutical[s] [are] a huge business; it’s global. You’ve got issues of pricing across borders. You’ve got importation of medicines. There is really a chance for the industry to look at itself globally in a fresh way, I think.

Interviewer:   Let’s move into a discussion about social marketing.  Porter Novelli was founded in 1972 and credits itself as being the founder of social marketing. Could you tell us about that and share some specific campaigns that you were involved in, that really focus in on the social good?

Ostrowski:   OK. Bill Novelli, who was one of the three founders of Porter-Novelli really is credited, and I think in a large part with being the father or the pioneer of social marketing; he was actually an advertising guy and also had worked in the Peace Corps, along with Jack Porter and Bob Druckenmiller. But they took the principles that they had learned from the advertising business and they applied them into how [we] can use that to create social good. How can you use marketing to change peoples’ behaviors and create a social good? 

One of their first clients actually was the National High Blood Pressure Education Program. At that time, Americans really didn’t even know what the term hypertension was and there were no treatments for it really, but they were starting to emerge from the clinic and it was a terrible problem. People were dying due to heart attack and stroke. So they hired Porter-Novelli to put in place a social marketing program—not just to educate people about what hypertension was—but to change Americans’ behaviors about getting tested, because now [if] you could get tested and understand what it is you’re looking for. So there was a number associated with that, your blood pressure reading. You could track it; there was a treatment for you that you could take that would help lower your high blood pressure. Also involved in that was better eating habits, more exercise, so a lot of different people or groups could get involved in that effort, not just pharmaceutical companies or physician groups, but also groups that were interested in physical education, schools, or whomever it might be. Over the length of that program, I can’t remember now the actual statistics, but a few years ago the government published a statistic on morbidity and mortality from heart attack at least and it was unbelievable in terms of how much it had fallen over that intervening period thanks to a long-term social marketing program, essentially. So that’s a good example of how that’s gotten used.

Many of the social marketing programs, by the way, were for government entities or associations. They had been used a little bit by corporations, but typically they loan themselves better to associations and organizations who typically are going to have a little longer-term view of things, I think, to really sustain it. One of the most famous programs was the Truth campaign, which was for the state of Florida when the state, like many states, received their compensation from tobacco companies’ settlements. That money had to be used to help reduce the incidence of smoking among teenagers. They had wacked away at this problem for a while, and everybody would use the typical arguments with teenagers [like]: “You’re going to die.” Yeah, maybe in twenty years when I’m old; not now. Or they would use “smoking makes you look unattractive.” Well, I don’t think so [because] all the cool kids in school smoke. So none of those were working. But what happened when we were brought into the campaign, we did some more research on teenagers—to really understand what motivated them—and we found [that] they did not trust business, big business. In particular, they felt that tobacco companies were very manipulative. That became the focal point for the campaign. Now this is a good segue way, perhaps, into social networking and social media, and so that campaign was designed by the teenagers, with the help of Porter-Novelli and the advertising agency. They also became the spokespeople and they saw over a two-year period, I think, a reduction of something like forty percent in the incidence of smoking in teenagers.

Back then when they had the campaign, you had to use things like mailing videos to people; you had to actually have a physical town hall meeting. If you were going to have an event, you had to get flyers out. Today, if you could use the social media that we have at our disposal, you can only imagine how much more you could have compressed the timing of that campaign and probably had either the same results in a shorter time or even better results. So it’s a very good example of both I think the application of social marketing, but also how that can carry through and what happens when you start to use social networking among peers, and then you overlay that with the technology [we have] today. If you have that campaign you can just put that technology on top of it and use that.

Interviewer: Has the Internet, the new media—Twitter, Blogging, and so forth—I think it’s kind of an obvious question, but has it made public relations more or less ethical and why?

Ostrowski:   I think that it should in the end make—that sort of begs to question as to whether or not public relations was unethical to begin with, which I would say from a practice standpoint, I don’t believe that to be the case. I have always believed—even before the advent of the Internet in such a big way—that if you were doing some research for a company or a client, you were the PR person or the agency and you were doing some competitive research, it would be patently wrong to call up a competitor and pretend: I am a student at X University and I’m doing some research on your company. Could you tell me about blah, blah, blah? I mean, a lot of people did that and that’s just wrong. That is not what our profession is about.

What is one of the Page Principles, the first one? Tell the truth. So if you’re predisposed to lie or to misrepresent yourself or your company, it doesn’t matter, pre or post-Internet, you’re going to do that anyway. The same thing with Sarbanes-Oxley; if you were going to, like Enron, misrepresent and falsify and lie, cheat, and steal essentially, Sarbanes-Oxley is not going to necessarily prevent that. That behavior will continue. So I think it’s sort of a behavioral issue. What I do think has changed is that due to all the social media tools now, the transparency now is so much greater and it’s immediate. You really have no margins for error. There’s no place to hide. So actually that should be very liberating and it should be very good for public relations. There are no more rocks that people can hide under, or if they can, not for very long. So I think what that has highlighted for our profession, however, is that we have to really be incredibly vigilant about transparency issues, not just the way we practice our craft, but for our organizations, whether they’re our own companies, organizations that we work in or whether we’re agencies and work for them. I think that is what has really changed I think forever, the environment in which we operate.

Interviewer: What are the abilities and characteristics that senior staff looks for when they’re interviewing potential employees? Hopefully ten or fifteen years down the road, scholars, but also students are going to be looking at this and what are the kinds of things that they should know and need to understand?

Ostrowski:   I think certainly there is the technical part of our craft that changes. Twenty or twenty-five years ago media pitching, for example, was an important skill. It isn’t to say that skill isn’t as important in its current configuration today and it will probably look different again in twenty to twenty-five more years. Writing has always been—I can’t imagine it won’t continue to be important to us in a profession; how you present yourself; how you present your ideas; those are important skill sets for our profession. I think there are others that are emerging, perhaps they should have been as important twenty-five years ago, but I think that the skills for success in our profession are the ability to see around the corners. We’ve been more, as you know the writers of the press materials, the statements, and the messaging people. What we need to understand now in a much more integrated world, much more complex world, all the drivers that we have; the three main drivers that The Page Society has identified, between globalization, stakeholder empowerment, and the new media — I like to think of it as social networking on steroids with the new media. Those trends have really created a much more complicated environment for us and the potential of public relations in that I think is huge.

It’s a great opportunity for us, but we have to really step up our game as professionals. We can’t just go in a corner and write our thing or send emails out or write the web page or whatever the current state is of the communications side. We have to be leaders. We have to help motivate our companies. We have to participate as leaders—we earn our place as a senior leader—and a function that is helping drive change or helping organizations deal with change. I think the current state of change that we see now—I don’t know what that looks like in terms of history, but they say that change keeps accelerating with each passing year or second or whatever. That’s just going to continue and I think the ability for our profession to help organizations deal with change and what that means in terms of their relationships with all the different constituents that they have to deal with in order to be successful is huge. That requires a lot of those skills of listening, of being calm, of having a little sense of humor, of being self aware, of being confident but not arrogant, knowing what you don’t know and not being afraid to say I don’t know but I will take care of it. For us, the worst thing to [do] is build a situation in which we’re not trusted. We say we’ll do something and then we don’t follow through. That’s true of any job; but particularly in our profession, we have such a high premium on trustworthiness that it is incredibly important for our ability to survive.

We have to understand all the different stakeholders that our organization deals with. We’re the only people really at the end of the day inside an organization that has that broad view. Nobody else has that, except maybe the CEO, and even then we’re probably best suited to help guide organizations through that. Does that mean that we run everything? No. Does that mean that the marketing function isn’t just as important in its own way? No. But our role has to really be one of being the guide for that web of relationships that an organization has to develop and cultivate in order to be successful.