Medicine and the Media: Keen Eye for the Straight Story

The relationship between business -- in this case pharma and biotech -- and the media is a tangled one. Companies hope to get the attention of major media outlets, but only if it?

By | June 21, 2005

The relationship between business -- in this case pharma and biotech -- and the media is a tangled one. Companies hope to get the attention of major media outlets, but only if it?s the right kind. Reporters, on the other hand, are digging to get the real story behind the press release, and their ultimate loyalty is to their readers. And a disgruntled lot of readers they are, at least in terms of the pharmaceutical industry, according to a panel of experts who spoke Monday at the Biotechnology Industry Organization?s annual meeting in Philadelphia. It seems the public trust in the pharmaceutical industry is as cracked as the giant Liberty Bell that served as this year?s logo for the meeting. Several surveys have indicated it?s one of the least trusted fields, says Tony Russo, CEO of Noonan Russo. The recall of Vioxx and Bextra, and other high-profile snafus haven?t helped. And it?s changing the way that the media and pharmaceutical companies approach their relationship. Reporters are definitely asking more questions, according to Geeta Anand, a biotech reporter at the Wall Street Journal. And the New York Times now has a policy that any scientist, doctor or stock analyst interviewed for a story has to state any financial conflict of interest, says Andrew Pollack, biotech correspondent for the Great Grey Lady (do they still call it that, now that it?s in color?) Arlene Weintraub of Business Week notes that the pressure is on to dig deep particularly since the 2000 market decline. The magazine recently ran a cover story on biotech, including the words ?Biotech, Finally? on the cover. Although the article was bullish on the subject, Weintraub noted that the article ? and cover ? was slightly less bullish than originally discussed, largely due to current events. On the other side, pharma is gearing up for a grilling. Ernie Knewitz, the senior director of global communications at Johnson and Johnson notes that pharma companies are thinking about every angle, every probing question that can be asked, before announcing results. If it feels like stories are harder to pitch to the media, you?re probably right. It?s a period of intense scrutiny of pharma practices, and most stories on the front page of newspapers seem to run along the lines of Guidant Corp.?s recall of 50,000 defibrillators, which were linked to two patient deaths. The panel had a few notes of advice about getting (the right kind of) attention. Throwing around the word ?innovation? or ?innovative? is a red flag to reporters, who are immediately skeptical when they hear it. This over-used buzzword may soon be synonymous with ?old-hat.? And while we?re on the topic, reporters prefer that if you?re claiming that results are ?the first time ever? or ?the first of its kind,? that it?s not the second, third or fourth time something has been published. Last on their wish list ? but not least ? is that if your trial has been a success, but previous clinical trials have been failures, it might be nice to disclose that information. On the other side, an audience member wanted to know why articles about the high cost of pharmaceuticals and biotechnology products never seem to mention the cost-benefit ratio for patients. The panel agrees that the information is useful; it?s just not usually available in a way that can be communicated to readers. While reporters do love stories that have a compelling patient angle, the science needs to be there to back it up. Pollack notes that there will always be at least one patient in every trial who has a miraculous response to a drug. However, if the evidence isn?t there for a true benefit over placebo, reporters don?t really want to hear about it, particularly if it?s a phase I trial. Indeed, Business Week would prefer to hear about the patients after they?ve already decided to do the story based on the science. And if you?re wondering why your competitor got all the attention and you didn?t, there are a few factors that can help. Having a high-profile partner, such as Genentech, can cause reporters to take a tiny biotech much more seriously. While a presence at a major meeting such as BIO can also help, don?t expect that reporters will be stopping by your booth any time soon. One audience member wanted to know if panel members were going to go up and down the exhibit floor, visiting each and every one of the 1,500 visiting companies at BIO. Not surprisingly, the answer was no.

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