9-Misc: Pitching Pharma: Biotechnology and the Media
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TITLE: Pitching Pharma: Biotechnology and the Media
SOURCE: HMS Beagle, Issue 114, by Clive Cookson
posted by checkbiotech.org/Syngenta
DATE: November 9, 2001
------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------
Pitching Pharma: Biotechnology and the Media
Abstract: Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have recently enjoyed
a rapid increase in media coverage. In this article, the author offers
advice on understanding and working with journalists to create a more
positive impression of these burgeoning industries.
This article will also appear in Drug Discovery Today
Although science and medicine are attracting more media attention, the news
coverage often appears in a form that anyone who really knows about the
subject recognizes as grossly exaggerated, either as positive stories in
the time-honoured "miracle cure" genre or as negative scare stories.
However, whatever you think of journalists, you cannot ignore their impact.
News stories, positive or negative, affect patient attitudes, research
grants, shareholder satisfaction and much more besides. I do not know of
any studies relating media coverage to long-term growth in shareholder
value; indeed, it is hard to know quite how such research would be carried
out, covering indirect effects such as the benefits of good publicity for
staff recruitment. However, there are studies showing that media coverage
of a corporate disaster, such as a food poisoning scare, has a short- to
medium-term impact on the share price.
Regardless of this, there is no way for a quoted company today to hide
completely from the media, even if it wanted to. Lexis-Nexis shows a
sustained rise in the number of Financial Times stories and articles about
biotechnology over the past decade, from just 124 in 1991 to 1,117 last
year - almost a tenfold increase (http://news.bmn.com/hmsbeagle/114/viewpts/
pressboxtab1). The number of articles in the FT about pharmaceuticals rose
from 783 in 1991 to 3,092 in 2000 (http://news.bmn.com/hmsbeagle/114/
viewpts/pressboxtab2). The New York Times, the leading national newspaper
in the U.S.A., has also expanded its coverage of biotechnology and
pharmaceuticals. Its biotechnology coverage grew from 339 articles in 1991
to 637 in 2000, with a peak in the early 1990s (http://news.bmn.com/
hmsbeagle/114/viewpts/pressboxtab1) This increase reflects the increased
resources newspapers are having to put into covering the sector. At the
beginning of the 1990s, the FT had only one specialist reporter covering
the whole span of the chemical, pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries
- me! Now there are half a dozen of us writing about pharmaceuticals and
biotechnology. There is a similar pattern in the NYT's pharmaceuticals
No pharmaceutical company should look at its policy toward the media in
isolation. It should be part of a wider, more open attitude to the outside
world. The old secretive management styles are dying. In the age of the
Internet and mass communications, it no longer makes sense to hoard
information, only giving it out stingily like a Victorian miser with a bag
of gold. The old practice - that you released as little information as you
could get away with - must be replaced with a new rule: all information is
freely available unless there is a compelling commercial or legal reason to
keep it confidential.
In my experience of over 20 years in science and medical journalism,
corporations in general have become steadily better in their approach to
the media. By 'better', I mean more open, responsive to journalists and
proactive in their public relations policy. But there is still room for
In the overall context of corporate media relations, the most important
thing is to build up a good long-term relationship with journalists. Make
friends with them (although remember that good journalists will resist
developing too cosy a relationship with any organization they cover
regularly). Help journalists write stories about your company or research
field. Feed them information, on and off the record. Then, when big news
breaks - whether it is a crisis because your leading product fails in Phase
III trials or a triumph when it receives FDA approval - the coverage will
be more sympathetic. Although journalists do of course aim to make every
story fair, accurate and balanced in its own right, it is human nature to
write favourably about companies that are always friendly and open - and
nastily about those with a reputation for secrecy or arrogance.
Many people in pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries do not really
understand the operating constraints on science or medical journalists in
the mass media. The challenge that is often uppermost in the journalist's
mind is not so much to get the scientific truth across to the reader or
viewer, but rather to sell the story to the news editor or whichever other
internal gatekeeper that the newspaper, magazine or TV programme employs.
Remember that the media always has a vast oversupply of potential stories,
even at slack periods like the Christmas and New Year lull or the August
"silly season." If a story is worthy but not sensational enough, it might
be ignored - or "spiked" in journalists' jargon.
Personally, I would rather read a serious biomedical story than anything
about the entertainment business or the Royal family or most things about
politics, but news editors have different values, even on serious
newspapers, and a scare story about a new vaccine, for example, might tune
in better with those values than a measured attempt to communicate the real
risks and benefits of vaccination. Right or wrong, the mass media are about
entertainment as much as information.
The process by which certain stories are picked up and run in the media,
whereas others never get started, is chancy, even capricious. Coverage will
depend on how many other stories are around on the day, and who happens to
be on duty among the writing and editing staff. For example, a potential
science story is less likely to make the pages of the FT if it crops up
while I am on holiday rather than in the office!
Where Do the Stories Come from?
Journalists' sources fall into five broad categories:
(1) Press releases and official announcements by mail, fax and e-mail
arrive in gigantic quantities (and, sadly, being on many e-mail press lists
does not seem to have reduced the amount arriving by post or fax). On a
typical day I might receive 70 press releases as well as publicity
materials such as corporate magazines - a pile of paper about half a metre
high. The vast majority goes straight into the 40-gallon oil drums we use
to collect waste paper.
(2) Personal contacts by letter, phone or mail can give the best stories of
all - those sought-after scoops and exclusives. However, we have to beware
of the false exclusives. All too often, a public relations person rings up
and says breathlessly: "You can have this story all to yourself if you
agree to run it prominently in the FT," when in fact it is so obscure that
no one else will want it.
(3) Visits to press conferences, scientific meetings, academic and
industrial laboratories, and so on, will usually produce a worthwhile
story. With modern communications technology, it would be possible to work
as a reporter without leaving the office, but I think it is essential to
get out at least once a week to meet people and see how they work.
(4) Papers in academic journals - Nature, Science, The Lancet and so on -
are a vital source of news for science and medical journalists. The
journals normally provide access to their most interesting papers a few
days ahead of publication, on an embargoed basis, to give us time to
prepare stories. (An embargo means that an organization gives out news in
advance on condition that no one prints or broadcasts it before a specific
time.) Because most leading journals are published on Thursdays and
Fridays, more research-based news stories appear towards the end of the
week than at the beginning. The most important source of embargoed
information is a web-based service called Eurekalert, run by the American
Association for the Advancement of Science, to which science journalists
have access through a password-protected site.
(5) Following up something in another paper or magazine, or on radio or
television is the source that we like least, but that we often feel obliged
to use. Once a story starts in one newspaper, it might develop what
journalists call "legs" and run in many others. (The advent of computer
databases has made it much easier to follow up stories than it used to be
in the old days of paper cuttings, but it means that an error in one
newspaper is more likely to be imitated elsewhere.)
What Makes a Good Story?
Non-journalists often ask what attracts media attention - what makes a
"good story?" Unfortunately this is extremely hard to define for outsiders.
You can list some attractive ingredients: sex; intrigue; corruption; death
and disease; bizarre events; genuine scientific breakthroughs. If someone
does not want you to publish the story, that adds a frisson of excitement.
Above all, a good story is unexpected. One test is "guess what, Mum!" - is
the story interesting enough to tell my mother about when I phone her for a
I cannot over-emphasize the vast number of science stories that I could
write, compared with my time and the space available for them in the paper.
Given unlimited time and resources, I could write thousands more pieces
than I actually do, and the longer I do the job, the longer grows my list
of subjects to cover in the future.
However, let me go back now to look in a bit more detail at some of the
'dos' and 'don'ts' of media relations from the journalist's point of view.
The first point is that companies should be more discriminating about what
news they release. Although large pharmaceutical groups are suitably
restrained in their behaviour, some young biotechnology companies (with
impatient investors to placate) seem to suffer badly from press-release
diarrhoea, feeling compelled to tell the world about every obscure
appointment they make or licensing deal they conclude. They build up every
commercial deal into a major strategic alliance - provoking one of my
colleagues to remark recently that he wanted to put out a press release
announcing a strategic alliance with his local supermarket because he shops
there every week. We only want to hear about really important scientific,
clinical, strategic or financial news.
Some public relations people are double offenders. They send a boring or
unusable press release, and then they telephone, disturbing me on deadline,
to check whether I have received it and need any further information. It is
essential to reserve such phone calls for really truly important news and
preferably to call as early in the day as possible (though this can
difficult for people in the U.S.A. calling London).
Another point, which is obvious but absolutely essential, is to make sure
that press releases are written in a clear, concise, jargon-free style,
explaining at the top what they are about. Although there are severe
constraints from regulators such as the Securities and Exchange Commission
and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about what a quoted company must
include in a statement and what it cannot say, these rules do not excuse
deliberate obfuscation. Too many companies assume that everyone knows what
their business involves. With thousands of companies and biomedical
organizations out there clamouring for attention, a science journalist will
almost certainly not be immersed in the technology of any individual
company. It is no longer necessary to explain what DNA or the human genome
or monoclonal antibodies are, but terms like "albumin fusion technology" do
Equally obvious, but frequently ignored (particularly by European
companies), is the absolute necessity of making sure that if a release goes
out with a contact name and phone number, someone will be there, ready to
respond. Nothing is more certain to put a journalist off a story than to
receive a jargon-ridden press release and then, when he or she calls up for
an explanation, to find that no one is available to respond until after the
One of my pet hates is to receive a release giving clinical trial results
that purports to come from an academic centre but, when read closely, is
actually from a PR agency working for a pharmaceutical company. I regard it
almost as deceitful for companies to bury their involvement in a project,
in the hope that naive journalists will be more likely to write about it if
they think it is a university project.
However, I want to conclude on an encouraging note. I meet too many people
in the pharmaceutical industry who have a defensive or negative attitude to
the media - a feeling that the world in general, and journalists in
particular, do not understand their good work and are "out to get them." In
my experience, most journalists and their readers have a positive view of
the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. Please help the media to
create an even more positive impression of your industry.
*Clive Cookson is the science editor for the Financial Times.
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