Picture this: Among the cirque du swag of the BIO 2006 exhibit hall in Chicago, a cheerful young scientist pads up to the booth of a certain magazine of the life sciences. On scanning her nametag, one of my colleagues notices an interesting affiliation: Philip Morris. Intrigued, my colleague asks the senior research scientist about her work, which she says involves "harm reduction."
With 16,000 people in attendance, BIO is as far as you can get from the deserted parking garage that was the scene of a meeting between an investigative reporter and tobacco company research biologist Jeffrey Wigand, the whistleblower played by Russell Crowe in The Insider. It was enough to make us think that this perfectly pleasant woman was a sign that the company had turned a new leaf - if you'll pardon the pun - towards transparency. The prospect of writing a profile of this scientist was intriguing.
If only it were so. The following Monday, armed with the senior research scientist's willingly proffered card, I called her. Bubbly and sweet, she answered her own phone, saying that the prospect of an interview sounded interesting, although she'd been at the company only six months and might not be the best person to talk with. She said she'd get back to me.
Tuesday morning, I had a message from one Greg Mathe inviting me to return his phone call. I would have to answer some questions about the story we proposed before getting access to the scientist. When prodded, Mathe revealed that he works with the public affairs office, "but I'm not a spokesperson." This was apparently important, as it would be reiterated several times. Mathe told me, nicely, that they'd let me "know either way," before deadline.
Days passed, and while I understand the desire to vet a story, I couldn't imagine what was taking so long. So on Thursday, I called back to find out. Apparently, Mathe told me, they have to interview her and her superiors to determine if the interview was appropriate. Friday, my deadline, Mathe called to inform me that the researcher in question had declined. He couldn't offer a reason, or another interview: She simply declined. When I asked for the spelling of his name, he repeated his earlier statement: "I'm not a spokesperson for the company."
Soon, I was getting calls from Jennifer Golisch, an actual spokesperson for Philip Morris USA - finally, the big leagues. I expected a slick Nick Naylor type (a la Thank You For Smoking) gleaming with the polish of effectively deflecting a thousand pointed reporter questions. What I got was quite different.
Golisch politely informed me that the researcher in question had written her an E-mail saying that she did not wish to be interviewed and asking the media affairs group to let me know. "I have it in front of me," she said. Something didn't sound right about that. "When did she send that E-mail to you?" I asked. The answer, Monday April 17th, confirmed my suspicion.
That was the day before I received a call from Mathe, and four days before he told me she had declined. When I tried to get to the bottom of the song and dance they gave me about letting me know either way, Golisch became unhinged: "What exactly, I mean I'm just having a really hard time understanding exactly, see it seems to me, so you have, so you're sort of looking for, I'm just not sure what ... You know we've got some interesting things that are going on here."
Finally, a semblance of an explanation, but the answer sure didn't reflect well on their handling of the situation. Golisch said she thought the press office might have some interesting news to share with me about a proposed R&D center. That's apparently a good enough reason to hide details from me. And Golisch wouldn't even tell me more about said technology center. I was left wondering: If this is how Philip Morris handles reporters who come calling with potentially positive coverage, what happens when folks are chasing down a less pleasant lead?