Pharma PROs face growing pressure

PROs in the pharma industry are often the target of militant tactics because of who they represent. Hannah Marriott looks at how they are responding

Last week's instalment of a new director at the Coalition for Medical Progress marks the latest episode in the increasingly heated debate surrounding animal testing.

The announcement of Jo Tanner's arrival at the CMP was accompanied by an undertaking that it would become "more visible" as the group dedicated to promoting animal research (PRWeek, 20 January).

The move coincided with the closure of a guinea-pig farm after a six-year campaign by anti-vivisectionists.

In October 2004 activists were blamed for grave-robbing the co-owner's mother-in-law – a particularly grisly event, even given the catalogue of extreme protest in this area. The family hopes the closure of the farm will lead to the body's return.

Being the public face of an organisation such as the CMP is a daunting task, but Tanner is not alone in the issues she will face. In fact, the PRCA has approached MPs with the concerns of some of its members.

Direct action campaigning has the potential to affect anyone. The way some campaigns operate means it is not only the primary targets, such as Huntingdon Life Sciences and Oxford University, that appear on protesters' hitlists. Organisations far down a controversial operation's supply chain can find themselves subject to campaigning, too. This tactic has been hugely successful for activists. These smaller firms are far more likely to back down, not least because the money changing hands is often slight.

Tellingly, many people approached by PRWeek would only speak on the understanding that their comments would be unattributable, anxious of any reprisals. PRWeek also contacted Shac and the Animal Liberation Front, but they were unavailable for comment.

Effective information
Barbara Davies, comms director at scientific research body RDS, offers a reassuring voice for pharma spokespeople. 'There is no evidence that making public statements about the use of animals in medical research leads to attacks by extremists.' And Robert Cogswell – activist for animal rights group Speak – says the majority of campaigns are 'not about intimidation. In the long run, only informing people will be effective'.

Kinross & Render executive chairman Sara Render has clients who were targeted because they supplied Huntingdon. None were directly involved in animal testing, but some correspondence became threatening.

Render did all she could to keep the companies' names out of the press: 'There are commercial reasons why you would not want it to be common knowledge – the company does not want to be misrepresented as unethical, get blacklisted or have staff threatened,' she says. 'Journalists are usually very sensitive and avoid exacerbating the situation.'

Cogswell agrees that journalists tend to be sensitive, but complains: 'It's difficult for us as activists to get our side across. For every ten seconds of coverage we get, the other side gets ten minutes.'

But for primary targets, keeping a low profile is not an option. Earlier this summer, activists claimed responsibility for a fire in an Oxford University boathouse. A spokeswoman for Oxford – which is building an animal research laboratory – explains that the local community is one of the most important audiences: 'They have seen major demonstrations in the city and been given leaflets by protesters.

There are lots of misconceptions to clear up.'

The university has even taken out an advert in the local newspaper to explain its side of the argument. And it has arranged for national and local journalists to meet with researchers, talk about their work and 'correct myths'.

For other stakeholders, including research funders and partners, it uses online communication, including the university's policy on the use of animals: 'There is growing openness,' argues the spokeswoman.

For companies who do speak out, one source says: 'Animal rights campaigners will never be convinced of your point of view, so you should not debate with them but communicate with the people who matter to you.'

He adds: 'Activists take the moral high ground and use emotive imagery. You should use emotional arguments too – facts and science won't sway people's judgement, but emotional
arguments will.'

Internal advocates
Those targeted also face a major internal comms challenge. Not only are staff kept abreast of the nature of the threat and security developments, but they are equipped with arguments themselves.

Another source says: 'We make sure staff know what's going on and can express these points of view. We make  them advocates at the pub, social club or football pitch.'

Apparently, none of the agencies who contacted the PRCA about
being targeted by campaigners were willing to be identified. MD Patrick Barrow says: 'No one wants to draw attention to it, but a significant proportion of our members have contacted us. PROs are advocates of the business, so it is no wonder they are targeted.'

Indeed, Cogswell admits his first point of contact at a company is often a communications or media director: 'They are people with influence, whose job it is to pass on information. It's nothing personal, it's just logical. Often their details are more accessible,' he says.

The issue of accessibility is particularly complex for PROs. Huntingdon and many pharma companies do not make public the names of their PROs. At RDS, although details are not on the website, PROs' names are readily available: 'We recognise we have to be here 24/7 for the media – it's an important part of our work,' says Davies.

Render believes the issue should be brought out into the open: 'People who have been affected should be braver – they brush threats under the carpet and don't want to complain, but we have to talk to resolve this.'

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