MEDIA BIOTECH: Biotech PR firms must get beyond the hype

There's much more to biotech PR than cloned sheep and DNA maps.

There's much more to biotech PR than cloned sheep and DNA maps.

There's much more to biotech PR than cloned sheep and DNA maps.

David Ward reports that agencies must understand complex scientific and financial issues before explaining them to the media

For most consumers, biotechnology is a mysterious industry known mostly for the volatility of stock prices and the long process a company goes through to bring a new product to market.

Occasionally, stories capture the public's attention, such as the Human Genome Project and the cloning of sheep. Mostly, however, biotech exists below the media's radar screen.

Part of this is because biotech is almost exclusively a research-driven industry. By the time the next wonder drug has reached your local pharmacy, most biotech firms - and their PR firms - are onto new projects. PR execs who specialize in biotech rarely stay with a product through its launch.

As a result, the biotech world tends to be relatively small, with biotech media and PR dealing in complexities that would baffle the average general assignment reporter.

'Because this is such a close-knit industry, a lot of the reporters make it their specialty,' says Justin Jackson, executive vice president at New York-based PR firm Burns McClellan. 'They go to conferences and speak to a lot of the CEOs on a regular basis. So they get to know it quite well.'

The biotech media tend to be divided into two distinct markets. On one side are the financial journalists; on the other are science, health and medicine reporters.

Press for money

Since most biotech firms are essentially small research and development labs that can go years without seeing any revenues, they must rely on private or public investors to help keep them going. As a result, these companies - and their PR partners - spend much of their time courting the financial press.

For example, biotech PR agencies talk often with outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, as well as reporters such as Angela Zimm at Bloomberg News, The New York Times' Andrew Pollack and Dane Hamilton at

Other media targets include producers and reporters at financial TV networks CNBC and CNNfn.

By and large, PR executives have nothing but praise for most of these media specialists, saying they are not only well-grounded in the fickle nature of biotech stocks, but they also have a keen understanding of the lengthy development, testing and approval process required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The biotech PR firms, in turn, try to treat these reporters with respect, delivering bad results as well as good while resisting the urge to oversell any particular announcement. 'Because there's this long product cycle, hype is ill-advised,' says Jackson. 'Hype will only last for so long. After that you have to have substance.'

Paul Laland, EVP with San Francisco-based GCI Health Technology, says a PR firm's credibility is extremely important in this field since most biotech start-ups end up never generating profits or delivering a product to market. 'The vast majority of biotech companies will fail,' explains Laland, who previously worked as corporate communications director at leading biotech firm Genentech.

Laland says his main goal is to manage his clients' expectations, making sure executives realize that a flurry of press releases isn't nearly as important as taking the time to provide reporters with background information that may not result in immediate coverage.

'Reporters are inundated with press releases on early studies,' says Laland. 'My strategy is to make sure that well in advance of when the story comes out - when you don't know the data outcome - you're educating the key reporters about the environment in which you are studying a certain drug.'

The science times

On the other side of the biotech media coin are reporters who focus primarily on the science and clinical aspects of new drugs and medical devices.

These include Associated Press writers Lauran Neergard and Dan Haney, The New York Times' Lawrence Fisher, Steven Sternberg of USA Today and reporters and editors at trade magazines such as BioCentury, BioPharm and Modern Drug Discovery.

But in many ways, the articles with most impact are in peer-review publications such as Science, Nature, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and The New England Journal of Medicine. The biomedical researchers themselves generally write the articles and no amount of PR can impact a story's placement or size.

'The actual research is clearly the domain of the scientists,' says Jim Weinrebe, vice president at Waltham, MA-based Schwartz Communications.

'Where the PR firm comes in is amplifying the impact of the published work so that it's heard beyond the confines of scientific journals and makes it into the mainstream space.'

Adds Jackson: 'Even the reporters who are very well-versed in this area feel more comfortable with external validation. They much prefer to cover something being presented at a conference where there was a review board or peer-review publication.'

By and large, biotech PR firms said most media problems result from journalists who don't have a firm grasp of the industry. These include the occasional wire service or local business reporter on deadline, who simply choose to rewrite the first few paragraphs of a press release without understanding the announcement's significance.

'With journalists who don't specialize, the challenge is to help them see things in perspective so that they don't over-exaggerate the potential, while still treating it as a piece of important news,' says Ed Stevens, who heads PResence Euro RSCG's San Diego office. 'The tough thing is to get the journalist to see the big picture and not treat every step in a product's life-cycle as a thumbs up or thumbs down.'


Financial biotech outlets and newspapers: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Forbes, Business Week, The Financial Times, local business journals

Wires: Associated Press, Bloomberg News, Dow Jones News Wires

TV & Radio: CNBC's 'Squawk Box,' CNNfn, morning news programs

Trade publications: BioPharm, Modern Drug Discovery, Med Ad News, BioPeople, Biotech Business, Biotech Reporter, The Pink Sheet, BioCentury, The BBI Newsletter, Biomedical Instrumentation and Technology, Biomedical Market Letter, Biomedical Products, The Gray Sheet, Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry, Medical Product Manufacturing News

Peer-review publications: Science, Nature, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the New England Journal of Medicine.

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