Big Pharma’s tax practices are the subject of a multiyear investigation by the Senate Finance Committee, with lawmakers targeting Merck, Bristol Myers Squibb, AbbVie, Abbott, and Amgen for financial details. The hot-button issue of taxes is reputationally risky for any corporation but the nexus between the pharmaceutical industry’s tax practices and drug prices, a topic that is already highly charged politically, makes the ongoing inquiry especially sensitive for drug makers. Proactive preparation for the increase in reputational risk as social media conversation spikes following reports on the committee’s findings or a potential hearing involves identification of the congressional voices that are likely to have the biggest impact on the discussion.
Outside of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)1, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) are the most noteworthy voices on the Senate Finance Committee when it comes to tax issues as measured by StratInt Research’s Influencer Score2. Although these lawmakers are the committee’s leading social media voices on tax issues, only Sens. Blackburn and Whitehouse are influential overall (i.e., they are influential regardless of the topic). In fact, Sens. Bennet and Wyden are respectively the committee’s tenth and eleventh most powerful voices on all topics among members who discussed taxes.
Influencer Scores of Select SFC Members*
*Accounts for 12 months of Twitter data. The Overall Influencer Score measures all tweet data from select Senate Finance Committee members, whereas the Tax Influencer Score limits the data with a tax-specific search string.
Apart from a lawmaker’s Influencer Score, the presence (or absence) of connections to key stakeholder groups (e.g., other lawmakers or individuals linked to think tanks, universities, or policy groups) are also indicative of their ability to shift the conversation on taxes beyond the Senate Finance Committee to other lawmakers who, for example, have the ability to turn the legislative spotlight on tax reform. At the moment, committee members have relatively few interactions (likes, replies, or quote retweets from other key stakeholder groups on tax-related content), meaning that social conversation on the investigation into Big Pharma’s tax practices from these lawmakers is unlikely to expand beyond the Senate Finance Committee without a catalyst. Occasionally, a lawmaker outside the committee, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), may tweet about corporate tax issues with an original post that has no connection (other than topic) to the committee’s conversation. The frequency of these types of posts are hard to predict but are most likely to emerge from lawmakers who frequently weigh in on controversial topics even if they are not currently the authors of any bills addressing those issues.
Given that few key stakeholder groups have interacted with committee members on tax-related content, the question becomes: If the spotlight on corporate tax issues brightens (i.e., during a hearing), how is the conversation likely to move beyond the Senate Finance Committee? Based on an examination of total connections between members who have discussed tax issues within the last quarter and other Influencers on all topics, Sen. Blackburn would be the most likely force for spreading the tax investigation topic outside of the committee.
Not only does she have the second most connections (38) but she is also influential on tax issues and overall topics as indicated by her Influencer Score. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), on the other hand, has more connections (43) but a very low engagement rate and post volume (4) on tax issues over the past year (.04%), suggesting that tax-related content is of little interest to his audience. Although Sen. Blackburn is likely to be a leading factor in the discussion, a headwind to her role in the topic’s spread is the fact that many of her connections stem from her divisiveness (i.e., people arguing against her). Since corporate tax reform is a bipartisan concern (even if the solutions are often partisan), fewer Influencers may be motivated to disagree with any stance she takes on the issue.
Another pathway for the tax investigation topic to move outside of the committee is via a post from Sen. Wyden. Although his overall Influencer Score is lower than many of his fellow committee members, he is influential on tax issues and, most importantly, his posts are frequently given added prominence thanks to retweets and direct mentions from the Senate Finance Committee account.
Map of Twitter Connections with Key Stakeholder Groups among Select SFC Members* (Spotlight of Sen. Blackburn’s Connections)
*Connections consist of any interactions (retweets, replies, quote-tweets, or mentions) from other key stakeholder groups in StratInt Research’s database with a pre-determined list of Twitter profiles.
The coming months are likely to see the Senate Finance Committee take several significant steps forward in its investigation of Big Pharma’s tax practices, ranging from the release of interim/final reports on the drug makers currently targeted by the committee to holding hearings on the subject with or without executives from each company in attendance. In preparation for the expected increase in coverage and social discussion on these developments, Sens. Whitehouse, Bennet, Wyden and Blackburn bear careful monitoring due to their leading Influencer Scores on tax-related issues; however, Blackburn and Whitehouse should be scrutinized even more closely as these policymakers are also influential overall when compared to their peers on the committee. If a hearing has been announced and the need to determine the most likely route for the tax investigation conversation to surface outside of the Senate Finance Committee becomes immediate, Sens. Blackburn and Wyden require attentive listening.
Ultimately, monitoring these voices will enhance a comms team’s ability to respond to trending posts on the tax investigation in a timely fashion with narratives crafted to address specific tax-related criticisms.
1. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is excluded from StratInt Research’s analysis because she has seven times more followers than the next most followed Senate Finance Committee lawmaker. Not only does her large audience make her the most important voice on the committee regardless of issue, but her follower count would unfairly impact the Influencer Score of her fellow lawmakers.
2. Influencer Score is a dynamic scoring methodology that accounts for all available social metrics for an Influencer (followers, posts, engagement rate, etc.,) and updates in real-time based on topic, peer-group comparison, and a specified time range.