In the last month, you’ve likely heard or read something about the pharmaceutical company Mylan and their product EpiPen. EpiPen, a device that delivers a dose of epinephrine for treatment of severe allergic reactions, has been subject to price hikes in the last eight years. Mylan, currently the only company authorized to produce an auto-injector of epinephrine, received backlash as a result of these increases, especially from family members of children with severe allergies. These family members united to turn their outrage into a campaign against the high prices. This campaign illustrates the revolutionized relationship between technology and advocacy/public affairs.
Mylan acquired the capability to sell EpiPens in 2007. When Mylan first marketed EpiPens, the price was $100 for a package of two. Since then, Mylan increased the product’s price more than 400 percent to $600 for a package of two pens.
It is not uncommon for drug prices to increase over time. According to an IMS Institute report, drug prices increased an average of 12.4 percent in 2015; Mylan’s EpiPen increased by 30 percent in 2015.
One of the main issues with the price hikes is the lack of competition for Mylan. Currently, no product of similar quality or purpose exists on the market.
The company has also been criticized for the size of its executive compensation packages at the same time the cost to consumers for the EpiPen was increasing. Price increases, the lack of a major competitor, and salary hikes for executives combined to create one of the most challenging communications stories we’ve seen this year.
Consumers took to social media and other online channels to share their anger and protest for change. In particular, parents of children with severe allergies have been outspoken on social media accounts and blogs, as well as on online campaign sites, about the financial burden their families faced.
The efforts of Mellini Kantayya, an actress based in Brooklyn, demonstrate how quickly social advocacy campaigns can grow. Kantayya, whose husband and friend’s children require EpiPens to treat life-threatening allergies, created a campaign on Petition2Congress.com and shared it to her Facebook.
The petition went live on July 11, and since Kantayya’s initial publication the petition has garnered some serious attention; as of publication time, 95,507 people have sent 143,743 letters and emails to challenge Mylan’s prices. Additionally, there is a petition on Change.org with 197,145 signatures as of publication time urging Mylan to decrease the price of the EpiPen.
Actress Sarah Jessica Parker, whose son has a severe peanut allergy, had previously partnered with Mylan to raise awareness of life-threatening allergies. Following the price increases of the EpiPen and the public outcry, Parker posted a statement to her Instagram to announce her departure from the partnership as a result of the prices and the stress they put on families. Mylan’s loss of a celebrity partnership further illustrates the costs of a high-profile public campaign.
Implications of This Campaign
There’s still a commonly held ideal that advocacy involves standing on street corners or on the steps of the Capitol to generate signatures and create change. Similarly, there is an impression that online advocacy gathers a lot of attention without generating actual change—it even has a name: “slacktivism.” The EpiPen issue represents a case study of digital public affairs and advocacy. Online response to the issue gained widespread attention weeks, and in some cases more than a month, before responses from politicians and executives at Mylan. The statements issued by high-profile professionals were likely motivated by pressure from the public’s advocacy work, demonstrating the impact of this campaign thus far.
Public affairs and advocacy can have a great ally in digital technology. Grassroots campaigns can now begin online with one person and spread to hundreds of thousands within just a few days. Ideas travel faster and gain momentum through social shares and online petitions. The speed and potential reach of these efforts means that communicators need to pay close attention to online activism—which can present either an opportunity or a crisis for a brand.