GENET archive


9-Misc: Pitching Pharma: Biotechnology and the Media

genet-news mailing list

-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------

TITLE:  Pitching Pharma: Biotechnology and the Media
SOURCE: HMS Beagle, Issue 114, by Clive Cookson
        posted by
DATE:   November 9, 2001

------------------ archive: ------------------

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 (
pressboxtab1). The number of articles in the FT about pharmaceuticals rose 
from 783 in 1991 to 3,092 in 2000 (
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 (
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 
coverage (

Building Relationships

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.

Understanding Journalists

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 
need explanation.

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 
deadline time.

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.


|                   GENET                     |
| European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering |
|                                             |
|             Hartmut MEYER (Mr)              |
|               Kleine Wiese 6                |
|           D - 38116 Braunschweig            |
|                 Germany                     |
|                                             |
| phone: +49-531-5168746                      |
| fax:   +49-531-5168747                      |
| email:                    |