Grunenthal's Apology for Thalidomide
Thalidomide was a drug developed by German pharmaceutical company Grunenthal in the 1950s and used to treat morning sickness and difficulty sleeping. It spread from Germany to other countries: “By 1957, thalidomide was sold over-the-counter in Germany. By 1960, it was sold throughout Europe and South America, in Canada, and in many other parts of the world” (Bern, 2011). Reports surfaced that women were giving birth to terribly deformed babies. Some had abnormally short limbs, with toes sprouting directly from the hips, and flipper-like arms—a condition known as phocomelia. Others had malformed internal organs or eye and ear defects. Women were miscarrying or giving birth to infants who died shortly after. (Bern, 2011)
Ultimately, “more than 10,000 children in 46 countries were estimated to have been born with deformities as a consequence of thalidomide use” (Bern, 2011). This was a terrible tragedy with victims throughout the world.
On August 31, 2012, Grunenthal's chief executive Harald Stock gave a speech at the dedication of a memorial for the victims of Thalidomide. This message consisted mainly of mortification and corrective action, as well as defeasibility and differentiation. Mortification
Stock began by acknowledging a responsibility related to this drug: “Thalidomide is and will always be part of our company's history. We have a responsibility and we face it openly.” He also said, “We are aware of our responsibility and will continue to fulfil it in demandoriented projects and initiatives.” Although he was vague about the nature of this responsibility, he explicitly stated regret: “We learned how much it is publicly desired that we express our deep regrets to those affected by thalidomide, and in particular to their mothers.” Another passage also singled out the anguish suffered by the mothers: “Therefore we want to address this message particularly to all the affected and their mothers. We realise that the mothers are carrying a heavy burden.” Another passage repeated his regrets and expressed his sympathy for everyone involved in the thalidomide tragedy:
On behalf of Grunenthal with its shareholders and all employees, I would like to take the opportunity at this moment of remembrance today to express our sincere regrets about the consequences of thalidomide and our deep sympathy for all those affected, their mothers and their families. We see both the physical hardship and the emotional stress that the affected, their families and particularly their mothers, had to suffer because of thalidomide and still have to endure day by day.
Furthermore, he said, “We wish that the thalidomide tragedy had never happened.” Although acceptance of responsibility for this tragedy was extremely vague, his expressions of regret and sympathy were quite clear.
Stock also apologized for the 50 years of his company's silence on thalidomide: “We also apologise for the fact that we have not found the way to you from person to person for almost 50 years. Instead, we have been silent and we are very sorry for that.” Thus the company apologized to victims both for the original thalidomide disaster and then for decades of silence.
Stock's speech also discussed corrective action undertaken by Grunenthal. He explained, Over the past few years the intensified dialogue led to our endowment of 50 million euros in 2009 as well as to projects in Germany and abroad, such as the Belgian patient card or the direct support of hardship cases which started about one year ago, to support those needs of individual affected people that are not covered by the foundation or social services.
He also mentioned future corrective action: “We have begun to mutually develop and implement projects with them, to improve their living situation and assist in hardship situations easily and efficiently. We will continue to pursue this path in the future.” It was good to know that the corrective action wasn't over, but there was no way to tell exactly what additional corrective action would occur in the future.
The speech from Stock also offered an excuse for the thalidomide tragedy. He explained to the audience,
The thalidomide tragedy took place 50 years ago in a world completely different from today . . . Grunenthal has acted in accordance with the state of scientific knowledge and all industr y standards for testing new drugs that were relevant and acknowledged in the 1950s and 1960s. We regret that the teratogenic potential of thalidomide could not be detected by the tests that we and others carried out before it was marketed.
The first part of this statement asserts that Grunenthal followed all industry standards for drug testing that were in place at the time. Stock expressed regret that the drug's side effects “could not be detected by the tests” conducted when the drug was developed. The clear implication is that the company was not responsible for the infant deaths and birth defects from its product.
Stock also tried to explain why it took so long for the company to address this tragedy: “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the silent shock that your fate has caused us.” The infant deaths and birth defects were clearly shocking. It is unclear why this would prevent the company from speaking about it for decades.
This defense cannot be evaluated as effective. This image repair effort stated, in effect, “We regret the tragedy, we have sympathy for the victims, we have a (vague) responsibility, but it wasn't our fault.” Of course, Stock might be correct in saying that the drug tests of the 1950s could not have revealed these side effects. However, waiting almost 50 years to say, essentially, “It wasn't our fault,” probably was not very persuasive to victims and those who sympathize with the victims. Given that the company had not admitted specific blame (discussing only a vague responsibility), defeasibility was not needed (that defense could always be raised in any future law suits) and undermined Grunenthal's use of mortification. Not surprising, the response from those affected was not positive. “Freddie Astbury, the president of campaign group Thalidomide UK, who was born in 1959 without arms or legs, said it was too little, too late” (Smith-Spark, 2012). Similarly, Geoff Adams-Spink (2012), who suffered birth defects from thalidomide, argued that Grunenthal should “admit that the drug was not adequately tested prior to release; admit that evidence of harmful side-effects was ignored and concealed; and admit that crucial documents 'went missing.'”
Corporate image repair is both pervasive and important and has been studied by many scholars. The new case studies in this chapter reveal or confirm three things. First, corporations can do more than announce or promise corrective action. BP followed through with reports detailing the positive effects from its programs. Second, the BP case also illustrates the fact that other sources can make statements that can undermine image repair efforts. Third, the Thalidomide apology illustrates the adage that some efforts are “too little, too late.” More work can expand our understanding of corporate image repair.