Paul Holmes

Guidant shows contempt for its PR pros by withholding chance to make right decision

Guidant shows contempt for its PR pros by withholding chance to make right decision

The third annual study into Generally Accepted Practices in the PR industry, published last week by researchers at the University of Southern California, suggested that the stature of PR is improving and that corporate executives are listening to what PR pros have to say.

But then along comes a story like the recent New York Times piece on medical-device maker Guidant Corp., and you realize just how incremental any improvement in the status of PR must be. Major corporations continue to make almost inexplicable decisions, ignoring the most elementary rules of reputation management.

Guidant, according to the Times report, found out three years ago that a defibrillator implanted in more than 24,000 people contained a flaw that caused a small number of the devices to short-circuit and malfunction. But the company declined to notify either physicians or patients until the death of a 21-year-old college student and the imminent publication of the Times story.

The company, which said it had changed its manufacturing process three years ago to eliminate the flaw, told the Times it had "not seen a compelling reason to issue an alert to physicians about the defibrillators because the failure rate was very low, and replacing the devices might pose greater patient risks." In other words, it decided that it was in a better position to make a key healthcare decision than either patients or physicians.

This was the wrong decision - patients surely had the right to make the decision for themselves - and one that would inevitably become public, creating a serious PR (and legal) problem for the company.

So where were Guidant's PR people? There are three possible answers:

The first is that they were never informed of the problem, either because Guidant didn't believe PR people had any worthwhile insight into an issue that could significantly impact the company's reputation or because Guidant knew what its PR people would say and had already decided it would ignore their advice, caring less about its long-term reputation than its quarterly revenues.

The second is that PR people were informed of the problem and agreed with other executives that there was no need to inform either the medical community or the company's customers.

The third is that PR people were informed, gave good advice, and were ignored.

Whichever of those three things is true, I would respectfully suggest that the PR people involved start looking for a new employer. They are working for a company that regards PR with contempt, and it's hard to imagine that working in PR at such a company will be a rewarding experience.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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