Shandwick accused of ethical violations

MADISON, NJ: A healthcare PR campaign has hit the national media's radar, saddling Shandwick and pharma client Schering-Plough with the burden of proving to the FDA that they did not engage in a deceptive grass-roots campaign to sell the hepatitis C drug Rebetron.

MADISON, NJ: A healthcare PR campaign has hit the national media's radar, saddling Shandwick and pharma client Schering-Plough with the burden of proving to the FDA that they did not engage in a deceptive grass-roots campaign to sell the hepatitis C drug Rebetron.

MADISON, NJ: A healthcare PR campaign has hit the national media's radar, saddling Shandwick and pharma client Schering-Plough with the burden of proving to the FDA that they did not engage in a deceptive grass-roots campaign to sell the hepatitis C drug Rebetron.

An expose in the September 12 edition of The Washington Post charged that Shandwick and Schering-Plough used 'deceptive' and 'ethically problematic' tactics in an 'Astro-Turf campaign.' Components of the campaign under scrutiny were Schering's failure to disclose its funding of coalition groups that lobbied elected officials to spend more money on education and treatment, as well as the promotion of a toll-free hepatitis C hotline paid for by Schering.

The FDA is investigating the case, worried that Schering-Plough has blurred the line between educational and promotional activities.

The timing of the expose coincides with the PRSA's revamped ethics code (see story, above). A guideline in the new code states that 'a member shall reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented, disclose financial interest in a client's organization and avoid deceptive practices.' The code says that when 'a member deceives the public by employing people to pose as volunteers to speak at public hearings and participate in 'grass-roots' campaigns,' it constitutes an ethical violation.

'Coalition members knew of our role at the outset,' said Schering-Plough director of external communications Robert Consalvo. 'If the public requests information (about the groups' funding) we would have done that.

Schering-Plough is not trying to hide its role or involvement.'

He added that the company would continue with similar public awareness campaigns.

'The reason that we went to these key (coalition) people is because if anyone is sophisticated and savvy about these things, it would be them,' said Nancy Longley, SVP at Shandwick Minneapolis. 'They don't want to see anything bad happening. They serve as the checks and balances in the system.'

This is not the first time Schering-Plough has come under fire for conducting misleading promotions for Rebetron. In 1999, the FDA's Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communications warned Schering to stop making claims that Rebetron was superior to other therapies because it completely eradicated the hepatitis C virus infection.

Bob Frause, chair of PRSA's Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, said of the Rebetron campaign, 'If you're more open and honest about what you're doing, it will be received a whole lot better than if you deceive them.'



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