PR Blunders of 2016: #1 Goes to Mylan (Op-Ed)


francie200By Francie Dudrey, Public Relations, Level 3 Communications

To say 2016 gave us a wealth of PR teachable moments would be like me saying I occasionally like to curl up on the couch and nap at eight months pregnant – it’s a VAST understatement.

My top pick for the biggest PR blunder goes to Mylan. For a refresher, Mylan produces the EpiPen, a life-saving treatment used to reverse the effects of a deadly allergic reaction. This past summer, a social media groundswell brought to light that Mylan had raised the price of its EpiPen to $600, or a 400 percent increase over the last seven years. To make matters worse, the drug’s biggest consumer is children. Enter incensed parents and legislators.

Mylan’s response was less than optimal:

  1. At first, the company did not admit error, but rather defended its price increase, citing the need to increase profits. This after the CEO’s pay had risen more than 600 percent during her tenure.
  2. After significant backlash, the company started offering copay assistance, but did nothing to stem the actual price of the drug.
  3. Mylan then said it would start offering a generic EpiPen for $300, leaving consumers to still question the $600 price of the original EpiPen and why a generic version wasn’t available sooner.

Mylan clearly shirked the key rules of crisis mitigation, which state you need to get in front of a problem as soon as it comes to light and take measures that show you’re committed to fixing the problem – not simply throwing a bunch of Band-Aids at it. When you’re in the business of saving lives, there’s not a lot of room for error.

On the other side of the spectrum, we saw examples of brands that flipped the script and turned something potentially catastrophic into a positive – even moneymaking – proposition.

Once such brand? Vanity Fair. After the magazine published a searing review of Trump Grill, Donald Trump took to Twitter to lambast the publication, saying it had poor numbers and that it was in big trouble. In response, Vanity Fair ran ads on its website using language like “the magazine Trump doesn’t want you to read.” Using this approach, Vanity Fair was not only able to garner even more exposure, but also saw its subscriptions rise 100-fold and within 24 hours, had added 13,000 subscribers.

So why did it work? Several reasons:

  1. Know your audience. Vanity Fair is well aware its audience most likely didn’t vote for Trump, so offering an opportunity to “stick it to the man” would be all-too appealing.
  2. Timeliness. The publication began running these ads within hours of Trump’s tweet. People have short memories these days, so it’s important to strike when emotions are still high.
  3. Making something off limits. We’re stubborn people. When someone says we can’t do something, it creates intrigue and curiosity. By telling readers that Vanity Fair is the magazine Trump doesn’t want you to read, people were motivated to find out what this publication had to say.

2016 – particularly the election cycle – challenged the fundamentals of what we know as PR practitioners and news consumers to be true. In this new world of fake news and post-truth, it’s easy to throw up our hands and feel inclined just to sit things out, but we’re PR pros – this is when we shine.

About the Author: Francie Dudrey, Public Relations, Level 3 Communications has 15 years of public relations experience and currently manages PR at Level 3 Communications, a Fortune 500 global communications company. Prior to her time at Level 3, Francie served as Corporate Communications Manager for DISH Network and Brand Experience Manager for the Learning Exchange, an educational nonprofit. Dudrey has a B.S. in Journalism and a B.A. in Spanish from the University of Kansas. 



  1. Patty Caballero on at 8:06 AM

    I agree with your assessment of Mylan being one of the worst PR blunders of 2016. Her interview on Squawk Box in August was a mess. Ms. Bresch’s statement that “No one is more frustrated than me” sounded out of touch with the realities of parents who are struggling financially to make sure their children have access to life-saving EpiPens. Mylan’s response to provide rebates was coupled with continued defense of its prices using pie charts that showed that everyone else in the healthcare system was to blame for the high costs of EpiPens. It was. as you said, a PR blunder.

  2. Ford Kanzler on at 10:34 AM

    Every year and nearly every news cycle provides PR pros examples of what to do and not do. Being an avid business news consumer should be standard practice. Observing and being conscious of what’s going on in your company’s or client’s business sector is part of the job. But reach beyond that and learn what’s happening in the broader world. Be a lifelong learner.

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