We've seen no shortage of apologies in the past few months from
corporations, politicians and the like, but last week, it was the turn
of a PR agency to say it was sorry. The Toronto office of
Fleishman-Hillard apologized to Bristol-Myers Squibb after an e-mail,
which accompanied a press release, was found to have overhyped the
benefits of heart drug Clopidogrel, claiming that it was the biggest
thing to have hit the anti-blood clotting world since the aspirin. (See
story, p. 5.) It was not enough to prevent the pharma giant from firing
Fleishman, but the agency hopes that in the meantime, it has put its
house in order, with local GM Linda Smith now insisting that e-mails, as
well as releases, must be checked prior to delivery.
This story underlines the treacherous waters into which PR wades when it
promotes medical products. Fleishman says the hype was just a mistake,
but it seems more likely that this was an overenthusiastic espousal of a
product by an account executive who was keen to get results for the
client, and hoped that a tantalizing little sound bite would provide a
bait to journalists.
Almost everyone in PR is guilty of exaggeration on occasion, and most
journalists understand that (indeed they're guilty themselves), but the
critical, often life-threatening nature of healthcare products makes it
vitally important that PR does not overstep the boundaries. The
importance of healthcare PR in this current environment also makes it
crucial that PR is not drawn further into the growing debate on
advertising new drugs directly to consumers.
The role of e-mail in PR But there's a second issue that the
Fleishman-Hillard/Bristol-Myers Squibb incident raises, and that's the
role of e-mail in PR. PR firms are not only control freaks by nature,
they're also accountable, and so it's natural that when an incident such
as this occurs, it encourages them to put more and more draconian
measures in place to ensure it "doesn't happen again." But as many an
account executive will tell you, today's press releases can go through a
committee process that eliminates all punch, personality, and in some
cases, grammar and English. The e-mail, then, becomes the only
opportunity to deal with reporters at a one-to-one level, allowing the
AEs to inject those little personal touches that can be the difference
between the bin and the building of a decent relationship with the
If Fleishman insists on checking all e-mails before they can be sent out
- and as PRWeek went to press it was not clear if this was a
company-wide directive, or in healthcare PR divisions, or in the Toronto
office only - it risks stifling the last few strands of personal
freedom, trust and empowerment that employees have in their media
relations. For the client, that might seem like a relief, but it could
also be to the client's ultimate disservice.
The best service to the client, in our opinion, is to train employees to
understand the importance of accuracy above all things. Making casual
statements in e-mails to reporters can be good media relations practice.
But not if it's hype, and certainly not if it's inaccurate.