GSK : Home truths

A drugs giant faces up to bad news with a prominent apology.

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The feature

Last Friday a Chinese court, after a 15-month investigation, found that GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the UK-based pharmaceutical company, ‘resorted to bribery’ to boost drug sales in China and otherwise ‘sought benefits in an unfair manner’. It handed down a record fine of Rmb3bn (US$488m) and gave suspended sentences of between two and four years to five GSK senior executives, including Mark Reilly, who led the company’s China operation.

Soon after the verdict was announced, a panel appeared in the upper right of the GSK global home page titled, ‘GSK China investigation outcome and statement of apology’ with an invitation to ‘read more’. Clicking on anywhere on the panel (which was still available as of September 23rd) takes visitors to a ‘China investigation’ landing page in the media section, with three clickable tabs giving an overview of the case, the ‘investigation outcome’ and past GSK statements as the investigation unfolded. On the overview and outcome pages there are prominent links to a press release, a statement of apology in PDF (containing English and Chinese versions), and the company’s latest CSR report.

The mea culpa also extends to the GSK China home page ( The apology is less prominent here, although it can be found in the news feed to the lower left. The main message is about the company’s ‘long-term commitment to China’. In addition, a post on GSK’s Twitter feed on the day the verdict was announced linked directly to the press release on the global website.

The takeaway

GSK’s reputation, particularly in China, but also in the rest of the world, has been badly damaged by the scandal. But adroit use of online channels has helped the rebuilding effort, and could (potentially) help reduce the chance of further legal action on the horizon.

In some circumstances it could be risky for a company to place an apology so prominently on the home page. But with the legal issues in China settled GSK appears to have judged that most visitors to its home page will be expecting to see the company’s response and will appreciate not having to search for it. Placing it even more conspicuously than might be expected could win points from journalists, investors, jobseekers and others for at least confronting the bad news head on.

By addressing the issue on the website, GSK can also better control the context around the apology. For example, another larger panel on the home page highlights GSK’s efforts in fighting the Ebola virus, and another promotes a story about a lab in London where scientists investigate sports performance. Linking to the CSRreport as well as the press release and statement of apology also sends the message that, in other ways, GSK sees itself as a good corporate citizen.
First published 25 September, 2014
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