COMMENT: Thought Leader - PR opportunities in biotech exist forthose who are willing to pay their dues

In 1998, the FDA approved the drug Enbrel for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, a debilitating disease that previously had no effective remedy.

In 1998, the FDA approved the drug Enbrel for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, a debilitating disease that previously had no effective remedy.

Produced by Seattle-based Immunex, the medical establishment praised Enbrel as a genuine breakthrough. Industry observers predicted that Immunex would soon join the pharmaceutical elite. Although the company had less production capacity for Enbrel than it needed, its management team felt a new Rhode Island production facility due to come online over the next several months would ensure no problems arose.

Yet, while Immunex remains successful, you'd never know it by reading business coverage, nearly all of which suggested the company had made a terrible miscalculation. Some reports in 2001 even implied that Immunex purposely limited production of a vital medical treatment for some nefarious reason.

Of course, Immunex did no such thing. But it also never mounted a serious communications initiative to diffuse the situation. Thus, Business Week was free to conclude that Immunex "could end up a one-drug wonder.

Reuters and The Wall Street Journal ran similar, though less critical stories.

Stockholders weren't happy. As of this writing, Immunex's stock price stands at about $30 per share, up from a $10 low caused by the press pile-on last year, but still down from $50 per share before the production capacity story broke.

Such avoidable PR catastrophes are the norm in an industry that is now receiving national attention like never before.

When Biopure announced early last year that Phase III trials of its drug Hemopure, a hemoglobin replacement derived from cows, were far more successful than the FDA had required, success seemed assured.

But after the press got wind of data that merely suggested Hemopure might cause kidney failure and high blood pressure, a feeding frenzy began.

Business Week, Reuters, and other top media outlets would eventually report that on top of everything else, some analysts feared that Hemopure might transmit mad cow disease to humans. A review of the science behind the drug clearly showed such claims to be absurd, and that concerns about high blood pressure and kidney disease were overblown.

But Biopure never clarified this. Company execs said they would only present the complete data during medical industry meetings last fall - months after the crisis ignited. From a scientific research perspective, this made sense. But from a PR standpoint, the company looked guilty.

The negative impression stuck and the company's stock took a hit. Reuters health reporter William Langbein last September wrote, "By remaining mum on the safety charge, the stock dropped 11% in May."

Such case studies seem compelling for PR firms and pros looking to offset the near-fatal loss of tech business over the past year. Moreover, most bioscience companies are run by scientists who are in it for the betterment of humanity, not the money. They also typically possess solid business plans and real products that must work in accordance with stringent government requirements. A PR pro can be forgiven for secreting a little more saliva than usual in pursuit of this kind of client.

Unfortunately, there's a down side. There are about 1,300 bio-tech companies in the US. Yet, in a dichotomy reminiscent of the social structure of a third world nation, situated literally next to the few big players like Genen-tech are hundreds of struggling start-ups conducting research on shoestring budgets, with no funding in sight. This is the quiet truth of the biotech industry.

The good news is that the industry is now realizing the need for PR to help generate visibility among investors, the medical community and established players, many of whom are looking for small shops to provide specialized scientific services.

But breaking into biotech PR isn't for the faint of heart. If you can't discuss the fine points of FDA approval, if you lack government or medical community contacts, and if Biology 101 was not your cup of tea, think some more before making the move.

If you decide to go for it, take a long-term view. In an industry that measures success over decades, company profits are likely to be several years off. But at some point, they will come, and perhaps in a large way.

FDA officials say they expect to approve about 300 drugs in the next few years under a newly streamlined process. That's compared to only about 100 approvals over the past 25 years.

You might also consider hiring experienced specialists, even a scientist or two. Unlike the hi-tech business, where hard-core programming or hardware experience isn't critical to obtaining coverage, people in biotech PR often hold hard science degrees that they put to good use when dealing with the press.

The bioscience industry is undergoing a fundamental shift in its thinking about PR. This year, Pharmaceutical Executive, a top industry trade magazine, is adding a new focus to its editorial coverage: the importance of implementing PR and marketing programs across the industry. Not a bad idea.

Eric DeRitis is a reporter turned PR exec. He has worked with Weber Shandwick Worldwide, Eastwick Communications, and Lockheed Martin. He presently lives in Silicon Valley.

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