On December 17, Martin Shkreli--the man instantly infamous after his company bought and then jacked up the price of Daraprim, which cures toxoplasmosis and malaria--was arrested by the FBI on charges of securities fraud. A couple days later, he received a simple direct message over Twitter from a 29-year-old Los Angeles resident named Mike Kulich: "I want to represent you."
He didn't mean in court.
Kulich was offering Skhreli public-relations consulting. Not an image makeover, but, rather, continued stardom. "Like the Kardashians," he explained. Shkreli bit, according to Kulich, and hired him as an independent contractor.
Kulich admits when he reached out to Shkreli, he hadn't actually done any crisis PR -- the image-management clean-up work, a la Olivia Pope. (In college, Kulich studied forensic psychology, hoping for a job that resembled what you see on CSI, not Scandal.) What Kulich had, though, was plenty of experience representing folks with unsavory reputations: He'd been working in porn marketing, and also ran an adult entertainment business. For years he'd been dreaming up publicity stunts -- such as offering Amanda Knox a large sum to appear in an adult film -- and then enticing the likes of Gawker or TMZ to treat that stunt offer like news. He claimed to be producing a porno homage to disgraced politician Anthony Weiner -- and that he'd donate 15 percent of its profits to Weiner's ill-fated mayoral campaign. He also helped create a Donald Trump parody "film."
Kulich and Shkreli hit it off over Twitter and Skype, and Kulich worked through January and February on the pharma bro's image: arranging interviews with publications, advising him on trending conversations online. (I might as well pause here to do this all at once: Kulich provided Inc. with a bank statement showing transfers from Shkreli, along with multiple forms of online correspondence between the two. When contacted to confirm that Kulich had worked for him, Shkreli referred all questions to his attorney, Benjamin Brafman, who, when reached, said he would not comment on anything related to Shkreli's case.)
I spoke with Kulich this week about his attempts to manage Shkreli's reputation, and this crazy new breed of social media-centered crisis PR he found himself operating. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited interview.
You direct-messaged Martin Shkreli over Twitter and he wrote back. What did you discuss when you got on the phone?
Before talking with him, I thought what everyone else did. But I realized I never heard his side of the story in the media, so I thought there just had to be more to it. He'd become a villainized, Lex Luthor sort of celebrity--I just knew he did that for a reason. I really wanted to know what his reason was. And I wanted to help him.
What did he say?
I asked him, "Obviously it's your product, and you can raise the price. But why did you raise it so high?" He explained that he was billing insurance companies for the $750 a pill, but giving away 60 percent of the drugs he manufactures, for free -- because if your insurance company wouldn't pay for it, he would give it to you. No one was being held back from getting the medication because of financial status.
When you were talking with him and strategizing with him, was this his original aim? He's talked a lot about being happy to play the heel, or to be a villain. People still do think of him like this -- you can't deny that.
I did ask him. He said, "I do care about people liking me. There are people out there that will like me, they just need to hear the story and make that determination for themselves. There are people out there who are never going to like me. But I'm not going to lose sleep over it."
Did you ask him what he's doing with the profits?
He's reinvesting into research-and-development, and he's trying to discover new drugs. For instance, his former company developed a drug that treats a rare genetic disorder. They announced last week that a person taking that medication is finally able to walk after not being able to for years.
After getting to know Martin, I kind of see him as, you know, like the Steve Jobs of the Millennials.
Well, that's quite a thing to say. So tell me what was your job? What kind of work did you do, and what advice did you give him?
Mostly analyzing where the media would go when he did a certain thing. At that time he was extremely relevant. He had been subpoenaed to Congress, so every move he made--every tweet he made--would be written up by every single news outlet on the web.
I tried to coach him. The thing about Martin is he really marches to the beat of his own drum. You can tell him what you think, but at the end of the day he's going to make the decision.
In that case, how did you even do your job?
My job was really to get his story out there and get people to understand why he did what he did. He may be the poster child for pharmaceutical greed, but that's how the media portrayed him. For some people, they're never going to change their mind about that.
I think the natural instinct is to rein in someone like that.
At first I told him to relax with the tweets. You know, "Don't kind of go nuts and go cowboy." He did calm down for a little bit. But then he started his live stream [on YouTube]. And that was kind of out the window.
What did you do?
Every night he was streaming -- at night I want to spend time with my fiancée -- but every night I was sitting at my computer watching this four-hour webcast, kind of preparing, like, "OK, he just said this; how am I going to spin that in his favor?" It was babysitting every word he said and being prepared for what was going to happen in a couple hours when the Buzzfeed people and TMZ reporters came into work.
Then I finally said, "We need to do some interviews, and we need to get your face out there, and we need to let you explain why you did what you did." I wanted to develop a piece where people could watch him -- after knowing what he did -- with an open mind, and make that determination for themselves. That's what the Vice documentary I worked on did. The reporter sat with Martin, and she did a written piece. Then there was the 16-minute video interview on Vice.com.
But the piece that ran with that video wasn't exactly glowing. It called Martin a "supervillain."
You would think they are two separate reporters. The written piece was all about how bad he was, but in the video he explained himself. People like watching videos better than they like reading. The video kind of took over the story. And all of a sudden I saw Twitter blowing up. People saying "I like Martin Shkreli." "Martin is my hero; Martin is saving lives." So that's when the thing really shifted.
All that happened right after the video posted?
It has more than one million views. His Twitter followers, like overnight, went from 30,000 to, like, 100,000. Literally overnight. And his live streams went from a few hundred people to a few thousand people. These are thousands of people who are sitting down and just watching a guy at his computer playing video games. (Editor's note: These days, in mid-March 2016, it seems more like 100 at a time watching these daily live videos.)
We turned him into that polarizing figure -- you just want to see what he's going to do next. My goal from the beginning was to get him into that position. But also tell his story. I think we did that.
So you actually think it really changed the conversation?
After that interview, no one was talking about drug pricing. Everyone was talking about the Wu Tang album. [The group released a single copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin; it had recently been revealed that Shkreli had purchased it for $2 million.] We'd steered the conversation away from the drug-pricing issue. People knew about the album then, and TMZ went to Ghostface [Killah, a member of Wu Tang], and asked him what he thought about Martin Shkreli. And he called him a "shithead."
Martin really came up with what he wanted to do with his "dis" video. [See below.] He's standing in his apartment with three hooded goons. He's like "Ghostface, I butter your bread." Within a day it got like, maybe four million hits. We gave it to TMZ to break.
What's the point of manufacturing a feud that's going to get a lot of attention, but that has no real depth or significance? This tabloid stuff that bubbles up for a day, and no one cares again?
Well. Um. OK. Basically, Martin also wanted to show that he wasn't just this pharma guy. He's a big music fan; if he wasn't, he wouldn't have paid $2 million for the album. He wanted to show, through his video and through being called a "shithead," that he's a very real guy. He wanted to talk about how he was raised. He was born and raised in Brooklyn; his parents were janitors. He wanted people to know his rags-to-riches story.
But he still continues with the abrasive personality -- saying things like maybe he wouldn't even listen to that album. That sounds like a PR nightmare.
For us, that worked out well. We were just really looking for the attention and the spotlight at that time. And that's what we got. Everyone was talking about him. He was trending on Twitter for like three days.
I understand that it all came across as positive from your viewpoint in terms of getting his story out there. But the immediate reaction -- and I think a lasting one, too -- of that Vice story was "This guy is on a hoverboard with a bottle of wine worth more than my car." Didn't you want to tell him: "Get off the hoverboard!"
He loves his hoverboard. I can't tell him to get off. I, personally, wouldn't be riding around on a hoverboard with a $15,000 bottle of wine.
Who would!? Oh, wait. We know.
I just told him, 'Be yourself and be real.' It's the same in how he responds to the tweets or conversations on his live stream. He's being himself, and he's making himself extremely accessible. He says right in his Twitter: Come video chat with me, haters are welcome.
Making yourself really accessible--is that something you would advise anyone who's been through a major controversy?
I think so. That's the best way to address everything. Especially people who have an assumption--when they actually talk to him, they change their minds pretty quick.
This strikes me as a whole new kind of crisis PR. It used to be about keeping things from becoming a conversation. Is it now about getting more and more attention, and hoping to drive that attention in different directions?
Think about how social media has evolved -- they offer [college] majors in it now. There has to be a type of PR that focuses on social media and how to steer that conversation. Because it's insane when the internet mob shows up for a particular conversation. They come by the millions. You need to be able to control that. I think it's a new type of PR. It's not something you can just put out a press release about and be done with it.
Does the person have to be willing to be controversial for that to work?
You do have to keep doing controversial stuff, because that's what brings the traffic and brings the hits and keeps you in the spotlight.
You didn't go to school for this. Where did you learn it, and social media in general?
I have no formal training in PR or marketing. But they say if you can do porn PR, then you can do anything. If you're going to get mainstream press out of a subject that's taboo and no one wants to write about, you can do anything.
How long had you been doing that?
I'd been doing that for probably three years. I won industry awards for best marketing. I really wanted to start branching out into mainstream. Martin was really the first person I reached out to. It was really fortunate for me. It was definitely a fun ride as well.
What have you learned about how to control the message on social media?
You have to monitor everything. My computer was up, "Martin Shkreli" was typed in my search on Twitter, and I watched every single tweet come in. Once you see a cluster coming up -- you know what direction this was going to go. You have to monitor not just articles that are written, but also the readers' reactions. You can say a lot in 140 characters.
I'm guessing, now that you're not working with Martin any longer, you're looking for new clients?
Yes, definitely. If you look at the internet every few days there's a new villain. People through social media just come at them with pitchforks. My job is to jump in front of the client and redirect the stampede. I think I could do it for just about anyone else.
Except that guy who killed [Cecil] the lion. I can't help that guy.