Is Mylan CEO Heather Bresch a Trekkie?

A chief executive officer is caught in a crisis of her own making and there is no apparent solution that will please all key audiences. That’s exactly the situation that Mylan CEO Heather Bresch found herself in two weeks ago.

And just as Capt. James T. Kirk of “Star Trek” beat the unbeatable test by getting creative and turning the situation to his advantage — stay with me here — Bresch may have saved her job, and her company, by changing the conversation. It’s a lesson in crisis communications: rather than participating in an argument you can’t win, find a way to change the conversation.

Bresch’s crisis erupted in August, fueled by reports that generic-drug maker Mylan had raised the price of its EpiPen (epinephrine injection, USP) product from $94 in 2007 to over $600 today. EpiPen is a life-saving medicine with no generic alternatives; it owns 85 percent of its market. The price increases, justified or not, proved devastating for many parents of children with severe allergies, school districts and others who need a constant supply of EpiPen. The initial outrage on price increases was quickly, and unsurprisingly, followed by accusations of regulatory nepotism and executive greed.

The storm of criticism left Bresch in a quandary familiar to many public-company CEOs: how could she justify her decisions to an outraged populace without betraying her shareholders? Simply resetting the price and issuing an apology would appease the public — but it would also likely mean her job and trigger a feast of shareholder lawsuits and regulatory inquiries. On the other hand, holding prices steady could inflict devastating long-term brand damage, especially as the race for a generic version of the EpiPen is heating up.

Mylan first tried to please both audiences by expanding its subsidies for EpiPens to those most in need while deflecting blame on the U.S. healthcare system for the price increases. That response was received with scorn, fueling another tsunami of reproach.

This is where many CEOs in a similar crisis have lost their jobs. I thought Bresch was facing the same fate. The company’s initial response had been tone deaf and inadequate. That’s when Bresch made her Capt. Kirk play. Of course, I can’t be sure that Bresch is a “Star Trek” fan. Perhaps she binge-watched the movies last weekend in honor of the series’ 50th anniversary and learned a value crisis communications lesson: rather than participating in an argument you can’t win, step back, assess and adapt.

Following that initial response, the company announced the launch of its generic EpiPen, priced at $300. The surprise move — it brings the generic version to market in the coming weeks — brilliantly quelled agitated customers and calmed shareholders’ nerves. And the cleverness of this response goes far beyond quieting all the criticism. Mylan is a generic drug company at heart, and the generic version of EpiPen was always its long-term play. By pushing it to market, the company gained a first-mover advantage. Investors will see some initial sales erosion, but in the long run revenues will stabilize in-line with generic-drug expectations.

So did Bresch and Mylan just pull off the pharmaceutical equivalent of Kirk’s Kobayashi Maru master stroke? Like Kirk, Bresch first failed, but then adapted, “reprogramming” the scenario, and turning the conversation to her advantage. It’s too early to tell whether Bresch’s maneuver will save her job or restore her reputation. Much scrutiny still exists. Regulators and legislators are still probing this issue. But for now, she’s still got her job, and she may have strengthened her biggest product’s competitive advantage — in the teeth of a crisis.

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