Recently, Martin Shkreli became the latest in a long line of American corporate villains, as news broke across the internet that he had purchased the patent of a drug known to fight infections that are common among AIDS patients, and then jacked the price more than 5,000%. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and similar social networks exploded with rage, and digital advocates secretly reveled in finally finding the face and voice of all that is wrong with American healthcare.
High drug prices are nothing new to America, and complaining about them is nothing new for Americans. Behind our general, albeit begrudging acceptance of outrageous drug prices is an understanding that as Americans, we are an innovative people. We invent, and therefore we invest. We may not like admitting it to ourselves, but on a purely logical level, we accept that it’s part of the capitalist equation.
But those rules don’t apply to Martin Shkreli. He bought a drug that already existed, had already been marketed, had existing patients that depended on it, and then raised the price so astronomically as to trigger the reaction of disbelief even among those in the investing world.
What the outraged masses almost entirely ignored, though, is that Martin Shkreli isn’t the first American CEO to pull this trick. He is not even be the richest, or the most successful. According to Forbes: “Questcor Pharmaceuticals raised the price of its drug, Acthar Gel, from $40 to $28,000 per vial. The reward? It was one of the best-performing stocks in America until Mallinckrodt bought it for $5.6 billion last year. Valeant Pharmaceuticals has done big price increases on numerous drugs. The stock’s up 740% over five years and its founder, Michael Pearson, is a billionaire. Only Shkreli has drawn the American public’s rage.”
Why is it that as Americans, we pick and choose our villains, running some out of town while giving others a pass? Why did the nation erupt at the idea of Tiger Woods as a serial philanderer, but just roll their eyes at the antics of, say, Charlie Sheen? Why were Americans ready to burn Bernie Madoff at the stake, but have never even heard of Cobus Kellermann, the South African fund manager whose Ponzi scheme may dwarf that of the New York convict? And why was Anthony Weiner run out of Congress and laughed at as a Mayoral candidate, when political sex scandals are practically a cottage industry in our country?
It may have something to do with the stories we attach to these supervillains. Tiger Woods is the young, handsome athlete whose sport reminds us of our own best selves: refined, respectable and sophisticated. There is a degree of honesty with an image like that, not one of a compulsive sex addict.
Bernie Madoff became THE American supervillain because his story came at a time when Americans were seeing their homes in foreclosure, their pensions plummet, and their paychecks freeze thanks to the inexplicable level of greed and excess exhibited on Wall Street. Yes, Wall Street has always been this way, but we were given a reason to be supremely pissed off at the idea of traders making off with our retirement, and along came Bernie Madoff, whose investment talents were as imaginary as the returns he claimed.
And while Anthony Weiner certainly isn’t the first politician to write the story of his own demise, he was the first to have it captured on Twitter and then amplified by an out-to-get-you internet publisher named Andrew Breitbart, whose readers came to expect the kind of sensationalistic stories the Weiner saga (no pun intended) handed to him on a silver, uh, iPhone.
To hear the collective story emerging from Facebook, it is as if Martin Shkreli lives the life of a modern-day Jordan Belfort (Wolf of Wall Street). The pictures blasted out in angry tweets show exactly the kind of 30-something, know-it-all, trust fund baby we picture walking the halls of Choate Academy, taking daddy’s helicopter home on weekends, and catching up in his inheritance at the family Hamptons compound. His story, as it was portrayed, has all the makings of a classic tale of internet scumbaggery.
The bad news for Martin Shkreli is, that’s all it takes. A compelling story is the critical element to a reputation crisis. Once you have lost control of your story – ie: your reputation or your brand – it is very difficult and very expensive to get it back. Martin Shkreli feels as if he has done nothing wrong, or at least nothing out of the ordinary among his investment peers. He wasn’t even the first to do it, and probably not the most profitable. But in the age of social media, and immediate consumption of news that relies almost entirely on visual storytelling, he quickly became the internet’s next victim.
Should we feel bad for Martin Shkreli? That is not the lesson I am seeking to convey here. The lesson for organizations who may fall victim to a reputation attack is simple: It is far less important to defend yourself to your friends using facts than it is to recognize the story being portrayed to people who have never heard of you.
Storytelling can be a weapon as much as it is an art form, and those that have succeeded at reclaiming their reputations after a crisis are the ones that can rewrite their story by first acknowledging the power of the one written for them.
Shaun Adamec is a communications professional, crisis planning expert, and recovering political operative. He is President and Founder of Adamec Communications, which helps those who seek to change the world find their voice.