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Commentary: Roseanne’s racist tweet and Sanofi’s swift and surprising riposte

Alexander Davies considers the remarkable story of how one company broke with pharma convention to speak out on social media


Roseanne Barr’s return to TV sitcom glory was a tremendous one, or at least at the start. Her self-titled sitcom about working-class life in America dominated the airwaves in the nineties. When the new series returned it was an overnight success, attracting 18 million viewers.

However, in a very 2018 twist, Roseanne’s relaunch ended abruptly thanks to a single tweet. The actress, previously a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, sent a racist and derogatory tweet about a former aide to Barack Obama. The reaction was understandably fast and furious. Within 24 hours of the offensive message, ABC had cancelled her sitcom.

In an attempt to apologise and justify her actions, Roseanne blamed “Ambien tweeting”, (pictured right) appearing to allege that the popular sleeping pill had contributed to her abhorrent message. What happened next is of particular interest to those of us who work in pharma communications…

Sanofi US, who manufacture Ambien, issued a tweet (pictured below) that made headlines around the world.

Sanofi reply

“People of all races, religions and nationalities work at Sanofi every day to improve the lives of people around the world” they said, “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication”. It widely considered a bold, brave and brilliant riposte. The message immediately went as viral as the offensive tweet that has started it all, garnering nearly 70,000 retweets and being liked by more than 185,000 users.

The Sanofi response was successful for a number of reasons. It was well-worded, pithy and conveyed a positive message in what was a very negative debate. It was clever, removing Ambien from the debate without talking about the drug directly (for compliance reasons) or talking about Barr directly (for legal reasons). What’s more, it was also unexpected. Pharma companies aren’t meant to be punchy, are they? They aren’t fast to respond or brave in their words, so what the hell happened?

As a PR man, I’ve been mulling it over in the days since the tweet and have tried to rationalise what made the company’s response so successful – I think there are two main reasons. First, Sanofi didn’t have to enter this particular debate, they chose to. Despite Roseanne’s Ambien-excuse, no one really expected the manufacturer of the pill to comment. Why would they? Most pharma companies run at the first sign of controversy, understandably so. No one wants to put their reputation at risk unnecessarily, and big brands often have a poor history of handling issues of race relations. It was therefore impressive of Sanofi to take a stand and send a message. They will have rationalised that their message was, yes, entering a controversial debate but not in a way that exposed them to risk. Their tweet wasn’t just defendable, it was something that employees could be proud of. Most importantly, their response allowed the business to tell a powerful corporate story about inclusion and diversity.

Secondly, and perhaps most surprisingly for big pharma, it was fast. Traditionally, pharma companies can take days, if not weeks, to approve even the most amenable language. For a company like Sanofi to respond to the issue of the day, on the day itself, was nothing short of remarkable. The executives at Sanofi were bold, they took a decision quickly and they ran with it. We may never know what hurdles they went through internally to approve their response but thank goodness they did. For they have shown us all that pharma can be pithy, we can be fast, and we can enter debates that we’d normally avoid.

The Sanofi tweet might be a watershed moment; in the future, pharma might just surprise you.

Alexander Davies is associate director at Hanover.

Alexander Davies is associate director at Hanover

19th June 2018

From: Marketing



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