It's often been said, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” Often said, but little heeded. After all, if attempts to fix things unbroken weren't taken, then there would be fewer ways to justify corporate existence or to bill clients—some of whom have vested interests in keeping their contractors busy.
I remember an incident about six years ago when the first issue of the then-new year's New England Journal of Medicine published an article about two agents used in combination to treat a particular type of cancer. The two agents happened to be products of the same pharmaceutical company, and the study was positive.
Acknowledgement of the results in the prestigious peer-reviewed medical journal would generally have been enough to generate plenty of positive publicity through legitimate news channels without help—or interference—from public relations people, but alas, it was not enough to let well enough alone.
The morning the embargo was lifted from publicizing the study, I received several phone calls from the various medical and health reporters representing print and electronic news media in the major-media-market city where I was situated.
These reporters knew me and knew how I did—and didn't—work. They knew that in my role as public affairs officer for a comprehensive cancer center I never used PR agencies. So when a young woman phoned each of them in turn to tell them she was with a national public relations firm calling on behalf of a certain international pharmaceutical company and was working with a well-known oncologist from my institution who would be available for interviews concerning his involvement in the study in that week's NEJM, a little red flag raised itself, prompting each of the reporters to contact me directly.
At first, I had no idea what they were talking about. “Who called you? Which agency was she with? She told you what—that she was working with Dr. Medonc?
Impossible,” I said. “This institution's staff doesn't work with PR agencies representing drug companies; all media requests go through public affairs to assess appropriateness, what's needed, and who could best provide it.”
“That's right,” each reporter told me, “that's why we're calling you, since something seemed rather fishy. So, what's going on, and should we speak with Dr. Medonc or not?”
“I'll let you know after I find out what's going on…what's your deadline?”
After speaking with the sought-after expert, I learned he had been aware of the study's publication that week and had been contacted by some pharma friends about his willingness to comment. I debriefed him to confirm the name of the PR agency person who was working with him and asked how he'd been involved in the study cited.
It turned out neither he nor the cancer center had participated in this particular clinical trial, but he was taking a lead role in another study that used one of the drugs in the New England Journal study in combination with yet another chemotherapeutic agent produced by the same company. That, he said, should be of news interest when it was eventually completed and published.
Misrepresented Center's Role
I then placed a call to the public relations person who had initiated all these calls and told her she had misrepresented the center's role in the trial she was pitching and had caused a bit of a problem with the local media.
She sounded very young and not especially knowledgeable. I told her I wanted to speak with a senior member of her firm and mentioned the name of a woman I knew who I believed was in an upper-management position. She said someone would get back to me.
Next, I returned calls to all the reporters I had spoken with, explaining that neither Dr. Medonc nor the center had been part of this trial, but he was leading a subsequent study and could provide expert comment about the implications of the findings in the NEJM study.
Miffed by Deception
All of them were miffed by the deception, and although some decided to submit short accounts based on wire-service coverage, a few actually said that they wouldn't report on the study at all.
I noted that the study results were somewhat significant and its publication in the New England Journal confirmed its importance, but they decided to pass, saying maybe they'd get back to me when the subsequent study was published.
Later that day, another relatively junior member of the PR firm followed up, saying she didn't understand why there was a problem: “You're the only cancer center public affairs director we've had any trouble with.”
“Okay,” I responded, barely keeping my temper. “Let me guess who else you've contacted,” I said, rattling off the names of half a dozen cancer experts specializing in this tumor type who were based at various leading centers throughout the country.
“How'd you know?,” she asked.
“Because I know who's doing what and which centers would welcome the opportunity to get some press without overly scrutinizing the request.”
Finally, early that evening, my phone rang and a male voice with a note of authority greeted me with, “Okay, everything's copacetic now, right?”
“No,” I answered. “Nothing's copacetic. Your handling of this ‘project’ has cost you coverage—and credibility—in this area—which has a little extra importance since your client also happens to be located in this region. I've already left a message with the company's head of public affairs. He's on vacation, but I hope to speak with him soon.”
The next morning, there was a message on my answering machine that had been placed at about midnight from the company's vacationing PR director. He was quite concerned and said he'd call as soon as he could and would have someone from his department arrange to visit me in the near future to help smooth things out.
When we finally talked, I told him that the New England Journal article would have gotten lots of media attention on its own and that reporters would have automatically called the same experts in the field who'd been pitched by the agency for comment.
“All you achieved was annoying the press, wasting a lot of people's time, and not getting any coverage for a study that deserved dissemination. I spent a day mending fences, and nothing much else was accomplished. You'd be better off having your in-house staff handle these matters and work in conjunction with the academic center public affairs directors. When will you learn that calls from agencies turn off the news media?”
“You know,” I went on, “we had another media fiasco a few years ago with one of your other PR agencies, and when I called your counterpart in New York he told me he hired agencies so if something went wrong he could hold them accountable and fire them. I'm sure he'd deny it if asked today, but it sure seems you guys have a pretty good track record to substantiate that rationale.”
The conversation ended without the pharma PR director actually confirming my observation, but then again, he didn't deny it either.