ANALYSIS: Client Profile - Vaccine maker fights lonely PR battleagainst hysteria

Beleaguered vaccine maker BioPort was under intense media scrutiny when anthrax panic ensued. Now it has FDA approval and an educated press on its side.

Beleaguered vaccine maker BioPort was under intense media scrutiny when anthrax panic ensued. Now it has FDA approval and an educated press on its side.

Before the first victim died from an anthrax-contaminated letter, setting off several months of national hysteria and panic-inducing headlines, Kim Brennen Root, senior manager of communications and government affairs at BioPort, was carving out a role as the first spokesperson for the nation's sole producer of the anthrax vaccine.

"Prior to September 11, only about 25% of my job involved media relations,

recalls Brennen Root. "I received about 10 calls a week from reporters."

But like so many things that changed after the World Trade Center attacks, Brennen Root and the BioPort corporation found themselves at the heart of the national security debate - and under intense media scrutiny.

Brennen Root joined the struggling vaccine producer in September 2000, after stints as assistant press secretary for former Sen. Don Riegle (D-MI), and chief spokesperson for the largest teachers' union in Michigan. When she arrived at BioPort, the company was in the midst of renovating its plant to meet the FDA's strict guidelines.

The state of Michigan originally built the Lansing, MI plant in 1925, but production of the vaccine had ceased by the time the operation was sold to BioPort in the fall of 1998. The vaccine had been stockpiled in warehouses so the US military could continue to vaccinate its troops.

Basically, BioPort inherited a series of crumbling buildings and an aging plant that had never been operated commercially. It was also noticeably absent of PR counsel until Bob Kramer took over as president of BioPort in 1999.

"There were many functional voids in the company, and one of those was PR,

says Kramer. "It was essential that we had counsel then, and it has proven to be even more essential after the events of the last half year."

BioPort had previously used a small Lansing PR firm, Rossman Martin & Associates. However, Brennen Root's arrival marked the first step toward a cohesive strategy and message for the organization.

Instead of trying to raise the company's profile after she took over, Brennen Root spent the majority of her time developing the relationship between BioPort and the Department of Defense, and working with the FDA to get the facility approved.

Then came September 11. "I remember that morning very well,

says Brennen Root. "Every individual understood that our sense of security had been rattled. Our company provides an essential component of that security."

Thrust into the spotlight

In the aftermath of September 11, pundits began to discuss how the attacks could have been worse; chemical and biological weapons such as anthrax and smallpox were at the top of the list, in terms of speculation. Then came the anthrax-laced letters to the national media and members of Congress.

Over the course of the next eight weeks, the story dominated the news, and raised fear around the US.

Between October 5 and 8, when the anthrax story first broke, the previously low-profile BioPort received 400 media calls. Brennen Root became swamped by the amount of inquiries. The lone anthrax vaccine producer had gone from anonymity to the focus of major-league attention in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, AP, Reuters, Los Angeles Times, CNN, ABC, NBC, FOX, and CBS. Every major media outlet in the country ran stories about BioPort and its beleaguered status.

Brennen Root spent extensive time preparing Kramer on how to answer questions from reporters - an interview with Barbara Walters was granted. But although the media turned to BioPort to learn about the different kinds of anthrax, a number of outlets - such as The New York Times and Salon.com - ran stories that were critical of the company and its history. "There were a number of misunderstandings about BioPort and the vaccine,

says Brennen Root.

"Correcting those was one of our primary challenges."

BioPort hired Rossman Martin & Associates, the agency it had used before, to manage its efforts on the local level. There were issues of security surrounding the plant - namely the likelihood of attack - that townspeople wanted addressed. The agency also helped field calls, and sort them for Brennen Root.

For the first week, Brennen Root spent every day answering the seemingly endless number of media requests the company was receiving. During that time, she also developed a background document for the media, and commissioned footage of the facility that she could send out electronically (issues of national security kept photographers from shooting their own photos of the grounds).

Throughout the crisis, Brennen Root continued to handle all of the company's national efforts on her own, rather than hire an outside agency. The onslaught was so overwhelming, she finally had to hire an assistant.

Clarifying BioPort's role

An essential component of BioPort's message was to convey to reporters its commitment to getting FDA approval and providing the nation's military with the vaccine. It also addressed issues about the safety of the vaccine.

On October 15, BioPort finally shipped its documentation to have the new facility approved. In one day, Kramer spoke on all four national morning shows, including the Today show, Good Morning America, and CBS Morning News.

At the end of October, Kramer spoke before a US Senate subcommittee on BioPort and its anthrax vaccine. In his speech, he addressed misinformation about anthrax, as well as about BioPort itself.

"The media coverage of anthrax exposures and the subsequent public health response was recently characterized as an Olympics of misinformation,

Kramer stated. "As it relates to BioPort corporation and its vaccine, this is most certainly the case. I will first point out the myths, and then lend clarification."

The number-one question that the media asked the company was, "When will the vaccine be available?

BioPort had to constantly remind the media that it was working as quickly and as accurately as possible to get the vaccine into production.

But it wasn't just reporters turning to BioPort for information; the company received several thousand phone calls from a terrified public looking to acquire the vaccine for their families. So many calls, in fact, that it set up a consumer hotline to inform the public that "all the anthrax vaccine stockpile that exists is owned by the Department of Defense, and is for the protection of the men and women who are risking their lives to fight for our freedom."

After that, the company put its nose to the grindstone to win FDA approval.

Between November and December, there were scant stories about the company.

BioPort deliberately kept a low profile, even after it received tentative FDA approval in mid-December. It was only after the company received final approval on January 31 that it decided to put itself in the spotlight again. The story was widely covered throughout the media.

Now that the vaccine is back in production and BioPort is busily fulfilling its obligations to the Department of Defense, the company is working on rehabilitating its image and straightening out misinformation about the vaccine and its effects.

The company touted an independent study by the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine that concluded that the anthrax vaccine was effective in protecting humans against all forms of anthrax. The story was picked up in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and the LA Times.

The company is also taking this opportunity to talk with reporters to make sure that they are updated and have accurate information. BioPort is also trying to position itself as an expert on bioterrorism, with Kramer speaking at many conferences addressing issues related to bioterrorism and homeland defense.

Now the company's main objectives are to make sure there is enough vaccine for the military, to look at who BioPort can further support (such as police officers and firefighters), and to develop a large civilian stockpile in case of a widespread attack.

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