Did Martin Shkreli’s Reddit Q&A Help or Hurt His Public Image?

Question: How have you and your public relations team dealt with the recent controversy? Answer: Poorly. (Photo: Paul Taggart/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli is in the midst of an image crisis. He became America’s most hated man overnight after raising the price of a life-saving drug more than 5,000 percent. 

So he did what one does these days to restructure one’s image: Shkreli took to Reddit over the weekend for an “Ask Me Anything” thread, laying himself bare to the probing questions of Reddit users, to disastrous — or soul-searching — results, depending on whom you ask. 

Here’s a sampling of the question-and-answer session. 

In case you haven’t followed the story, let’s briefly recap. In September, the New York Times reported that doctors were up in arms over the instant price hike on a drug called Daraprim, which has been used to treat malaria and parasitic infections for more than 60 years. Shkreli’s Turing Pharmaceuticals had raised the price from $13.50 to $750 per tablet after acquiring Daraprim the previous month. With this increase, the annual cost for treatment could easily run a to six figures.

Doctors worried that the result of such a hike might mean that hospitals would have to turn to alternative therapies that did not have Daraprim’s proven track record for success against toxoplasmosis, the life-threatening condition for some the drug treats. Shkreli was widely criticized for this price gouging.

In response to the controversy, Shkreli told NBC News that he planned to lower the price after such an emotional outcry. The price has remained $750. However, last week, competitor Imprimis Pharmaceuticals announced its plan to offer a similar drug for just $1 a dose.

A few days later, on Sunday evening, Shkreli took part in the Reddit “Ask Me Anything” thread. He fielded questions from users ranging from how he would have handled the price hike differently to his views on animal testing.

Martin Shkreli (Photo: Twitter)

In the midst of a bunch of seemingly innocuous questions, Shkreli also came under intense fire from several users. One user listed some 26 accounts that had been created within hours of the thread’s creation, which “lobbed softballs” for the CEO to answer.

Another user, who said he was a doctor from India, wanted to know how Shkreli justified the drastic increase in price. The company leader answered that he wanted to come up with a more potent version with fewer side effects that would not require taking folic acid while on the drug.

The user notes “the entire mechanism of the drug is to stop the production of folic acid in the first place, and the bulk of its side effects are tied up with that. It’s kind of counterintuitive to say that you are going to solve this problem when it’s not a problem as much as the whole raison d’être of the drug.” He says Shkreli would need to create an entirely different drug to make this possible. “I think your plan is flawed,” he states.

Why would Shkreli choose to do a disastrous Reddit AMA rather than an interview or press conference simply admitting he was wrong to raise prices on Daraprim? According to Karla Ivankovich, PhD, an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Springfield, he couldn’t — and it may not matter anyway. Resurrecting an image may not be the young executive’s goal. 

“If he admits that it was a poor move, he threatens a greater boycott from across the world,” she tells Yahoo Health. “So in the meantime, negative attention is better than no attention at all. You cannot negate the value of negative attention.”

In an age when last week’s news is old news today, and Imprimis has announced plans to counter Turing’s price bump, Ivankovich says that Shkreli’s goal might simply have been to milk the “media storm” for as long as he could. “It’s sort of like celebrities who end up in crisis,” she says. “He could not have brought all this attention to his company in any other way.”

The 32-year-old CEO also shows narcissistic tendencies, says Ivankovich, and displays little desire for a filter. Shkreli doesn’t apologize for the price increase but says he should have explained the rationale more carefully instead of like “a flippant jackass.” He jokes of someone who wants to date him that this individual should “get in line.” Mashable points out Shkreli’s latest stop on a “near-constant press tour of infamy” showed his affinity for “schoolyard-style comebacks” to insulting Redditors.

While perhaps not a personality disorder, narcissistic qualities, says Ivankovich, are characteristic of millennials currently excelling in business ventures. “It’s typical of this generation, especially rising men — they’re very shrewd in business,” she explains. “There are currently very young individuals running very successful companies. In the past, it might have taken a man until his 50s or 60s to rise to this level. But millennials are less humanistic and more driven by the moneymaking potential.”

Ivankovich says that a little narcissism can lead to success. High self-confidence often helps a person charm executives and garner support as they smoothly navigate the world of business — but it could backfire. “You have to make people believe in what you’re doing as you build a business,” she explains. “But narcissism can also start to negatively affect other aspects of life, like friends and home life.” This also includes public image.

At the end of the day, a $1 version of Daraprim is the potential good that can come from this price-gouging debacle. As for Shkreli’s controversial moves, he’s at least shocking enough (for now) to keep the Internet buzzing. “You cannot downplay the value of attention,” says Ivankovich, “whether it’s positive or negative.”

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