Communicating the code: Completing the rough map of the human genetic code is one of the most important science stories of all time As Cheryl A. Sweet reports, behind the scenes, there was also quite a story to the media relations plan.

On June 26, a pair of rival scientists gathered at the Capitol Hilton in Washington, DC, to announce that their separate teams of researchers had completed the first rough map of the human genetic code after a 10-year race costing millions of dollars. The accomplishment was likened to Lewis and Clark’s surveying the American West.

On June 26, a pair of rival scientists gathered at the Capitol Hilton in Washington, DC, to announce that their separate teams of researchers had completed the first rough map of the human genetic code after a 10-year race costing millions of dollars. The accomplishment was likened to Lewis and Clark’s surveying the American West.

On June 26, a pair of rival scientists gathered at the Capitol

Hilton in Washington, DC, to announce that their separate teams of

researchers had completed the first rough map of the human genetic code

after a 10-year race costing millions of dollars. The accomplishment was

likened to Lewis and Clark’s surveying the American West.

The press conference marked an unexpected truce between the two groups

of scientists. That the event - one of the biggest news stories of the

year - went off without a hitch was due to the communications skills of

each group’s leading scientists as well as some diligent

behind-the-scenes work by their respective PR teams.

Decoding the human genome involves placing in correct order the 3.1

billion base parts, or sub-units, that make up human DNA. Publicly

traded Celera Genomics Group, led by CEO Craig Venter, and the National

Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) National Human Genome Research Institute

(NHGRI), a publicly funded venture directed by Francis Collins, employed

different strategies to crack the genetic code. The two scientists also

differed on who should get credit for the milestone - whose genome

sequence was more complete, more accurate and more useful. (Other

international groups were involved in the NIH effort. See photo


’From a practical standpoint, Venter always had the leading edge in the

genome sequencing venture - his team worked faster and took more

calculated chances that paid off,’ says Janet Howe of Dallas-based Howe

Associates, a healthcare PR agency. ’As one might expect, the NIH

equivalent was bound by Collins’ conservatism and the inherent lumbering

pace of government-sponsored research.’ (But Rockville, MD-based Celera

had the advantage of having access to NHGRI’s research: every 24 hours,

the NIH team updated its findings on its Web site.)

Back to basics

The PR pros had one week to plan the news conference but, really, their

efforts started long before the big day in June.

For pros who work in the genomic area, a major part of their daily

battle is simply understanding the complex science. For this, they rely

heavily on the educational efforts of the scientists themselves. ’When

we started working with Celera (in August 1999), as much as we know

about science and technology, we felt we had to go back to school a

bit,’ admits Camela Stuby, senior vice president for Fleishman-Hillard,

Celera’s agency. ’We used internal and external resources, including

Celera’s experts, but Craig Venter was really the teacher.’

The same holds true for the government-backed work. ’I came here so

naive about genetics,’ says Cathy Yarbrough, communications director for

the NHGRI and a 30-year veteran of science and medical communications.

’I often listen to staff scientists’ interviews and how they answer

questions, as well as have discussions with Francis Collins. I’ve

finally absorbed genomics, but it’s been hard.’

Then, of course, these concepts needed to be conveyed accurately to the

press; reporters who have covered the human genome work for a long time

are called ’genomic junkies,’ according to Seema Kumar, associate

director of public affairs for the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical


The Whitehead Institute, part of the Massachusetts Institute of

Technology, is one of five Human Genome Project centers that assisted

the NIH in the mapping.

Kumar’s relationship with these reporters was instrumental in shaping

stories, she says. ’One of the challenges from a public relations and

communication perspective is that unlike most other events, we had to

watch the happenings in the genomic world with a hawk eye. It was like

being a stock market analyst - analyzing public opinion, scientific

discoveries and the media’s pulse. We had to know everything from the

nuts and bolts of shotgun sequencing (Venter’s gene-mapping approach) to

all aspects of genomic terminology. On a daily basis we kept on top of

nearly every piece written about the human genome, scanning the Web and

newspapers - whether it was about us or somebody else.’

A main difficulty in being a communicator on this story was the rivalry

between the two scientists. ’This was a challenge from the beginning,’

Kumar concedes. ’Anytime one side reached a particular milestone, the

media would immediately call the other side to get a comment. So we were

being asked to comment on things we weren’t familiar with. We tried to

stick to science, and what we didn’t know, we didn’t comment on.’

Planning the event

The scientists’ original plan was to hold a major press conference later

this year to promote the scientific publication of ’working draft’

papers by NIH’s Collins and Celera’s Venter. Even when both scientists

revealed, between March and May, that their drafts would be ready in

June, they planned to mark that occasion with only small - and

uncoordinated - announcements.

’We were operating under an understanding that the June event would be

relatively low key, perhaps a press release when the milestone had been

reached,’ relates Yarbrough. A series of meetings was held in May and

June to discuss the coordination of announcements, with eventual

agreement on back-to-back press conferences in the same location.

But the plans changed abruptly when President Clinton decided to make a

big deal of the mapping milestone with a White House conference in June,

rather than waiting for scientific publication later in the year. On

June 19, the White House informed insiders that its conference would

take place June 26, requesting secrecy from communicators.

’It’s my understanding that the White House wanted us to be mum to

reporters because they did not want any stories before June 26 that

would scoop their event and make it less newsworthy,’ says Yarbrough.

The scientists’ communicators wanted to piggyback off such a big event,

so they changed their plans to make the splash at a joint press

conference on the same day.

Burning the midnight oil

On the morning of Wednesday, June 21, Yarbrough and Heather Kowalski,

Celera’s corporate communications manager, met - for the first time - to

visit the National Academy of Sciences for a possible conference


Two days later, Yarbrough sent e-mail alerts to key reporters suggesting

that they check their e-mail later that day and over the weekend for

news regarding the Human Genome Project. That afternoon, Yarbrough and

Kowalski decided that the press conference would take place at the

Capitol Hilton, which has sufficient space and is close to the White

House, for those attending the morning presidential event.

For the PR people involved, the whirlwind week leading up the conference

was characterized by exhaustively long days, nonstop media calls, the

preparation of press materials and keeping pace with breaking


’Everything was changing, so it was important to remain flexible,’ notes

Yarbrough, whose small communications team fielded 50 to 75 reporters’

calls a day. ’Most of these journalists required lots of time from us,

since they were putting together major articles or series of


Many reporters called several times a day, and we were in the peculiar

position of not being able to tell them when the press conference was,

since the White House hadn’t given us approval to announce yet.’

At about 7:30 Friday evening, NHGRI and Celera gave reporters specifics

about Monday’s press conference. NHGRI relied on e-mail. Because Celera

is a public company, it used the wire services. The Celera ’Invitation

to Media’ read, in part, ’Celera Genomics to hold news briefing to

announce the first assembly of the human genome. The NIH, DOE

(Department of Energy) and international partners will announce a

working draft of the human genome.’

On Sunday June 25, the NHGRI held a working lunch at the Capitol Hilton,

after which NHGRI PR pros from partners the Whitehead Institute, Baylor

College of Medicine in Houston and Washington University School of

Medicine in St. Louis returned to Yarbrough’s office to work on bios, a

fact sheet and a press release. That lasted until about 12:30 am the

next day.

Whitehead’s Kumar drafted the press release. ’I began by brainstorming

with Eric Lander (head of Whitehead’s Center for Genome Research) about

the message we were trying to convey and getting the facts and science

straight. This release was challenging to write because there was so

much to say and so much riding on getting it right. But the tight

deadline helped, as did being immersed in all things genome - and Eric

Lander’s superb communications skills and guidance.’

On the night before the Monday conference, a severe thunderstorm

crippled the printer in Yarbrough’s office, sending her to a nearby

Kinko’s at 2 am. Collins didn’t begin drafting his White House speech

until 4 am.

’I wondered how he could be so creative so early, after all he’d done

over the weekend,’ says Yarbrough. Besides preparing for the milestone

announcements, Collins attended an out-of-town funeral that weekend.

With just two hours of sleep, Yarbrough returned to the office at 6 am

to finalize material - in shorts, a T-shirt and rollers (thanks to a

broken hair dryer that morning). ’People gathered to stuff press kits

were a bit amazed by my informal appearance and subsequent

transformation,’ she says. Yarbrough finished the news release at 7:50

am. At 8 am, she headed for the 10 am White House announcement. Other

team members left at 9 am for the Capitol Hilton to meet the PR folks

from the Washington University and Baylor sequencing centers to help

prepare for the 12:30 press conference, along with the Celera and

Fleishman folks.

The story, of course, was front-page news virtually all over the


The New York Times devoted most of its June 27 ’Science Times’ section

to the announcement. In early July, all the major newsweeklies had


The Economist and Time even featured the breakthrough on their


(The latter ran photos of Venter and Collins over the cover line,

’Cracking the Code.’)

Both teams say they are happy with the accuracy of the coverage - of the

announcement and the genome story prior to that - which they believe was

due to the head scientists on each side being such good


Both excel at transforming technical jargon into understandable

explanations, and are comfortable communicating their science directly

to the media and large audiences.

’Both Collins and Venter are skilled communicators,’ offers Nicholas

Wade, a reporter, and the resident ’genomics junkie,’ at The New York

Times. ’Collins has to work within the latitude of a government


Venter used to be less restrained, but with the growth of his corporate

responsibilities, he now talks more like Collins. Both in their public

announcements have learned to talk about general goals and avoid

technical detail.’

Venter, who used to work for NIH, has been criticized for being more

concerned with profits than science - and for being a publicity


’One of the reasons Celera did so well is that Craig Venter almost never

said no to an interview opportunity,’ says Lyn Christenson, corporate

communications vice president of PE Corp., Celera’s parent company. ’He

personally took the responsibility to educate journalists on how all

this stuff works.’

As for Collins, his head PR person, Yarbrough, says: ’Several leaders of

the human genome project are excellent communicators, with Francis

Collins being the best. He’s able to communicate his enthusiasm and

passion about the project so well. As a physician, he has been able to

paint the picture of the impact of genomics on medicine in a personal


A grade-A gathering

Breaking the news of the genetic code cracking thrilled even the most

seasoned PR pros. ’When I tell my PR colleagues all we had to do in one

week, they’re flabbergasted,’ says Yarbrough. ’I’ve never worked so

hard, under so much stress and with so little sleep.’

Celera also predictably praises itself for a job well done. ’Celera is

only two years old and this was a defining moment in many ways,’ says

Christenson. ’Our communications were focused on what this announcement

means to people in terms of healthcare and benefiting them.’

The June 26 announcement officially ushered in a new era of molecular

medicine, in which scientists will develop novel treatments and vaccines

targeting the roots of wide-ranging diseases. Researchers believe

mapping the genetic code could ultimately let doctors tailor treatments

to individuals, and even correct genetic flaws before birth. Other

impressive predictions include a generation of specialized wonder drugs

and a greater precision in diagnosing and treating cancer.

Opinions differ over the impact of the scientists’ rivalry on the

monumental mapping news. ’Craig Venter took away any hope of public

perception to lean toward a noble image of this giant step for mankind,’

says Howe.

’By his own hand, Venter left the image of commercial greed and an

investor feeding frenzy surrounding the June 26 announcement that the

genome sequencing had been accomplished.’

John Smith, senior vice president of Brodeur Worldwide’s Health

Technology Practice, disagrees. He claims the conflict made the press

more interested in covering the story. ’While the feuding and

personality clashes clearly threatened to overwhelm the good news,’ he

reasons, ’competition often secures such feats in human memory, with the

personalities involved making a project seen as dry and dull, appear

more human and memorable.’

As for Kumar, she believes the so-called race was a media misperception:

’If one side is putting out all their information on the Web every 24

hours for the world to see, including its so-called competitor, that by

definition isn’t a race. But we were trapped in that analogy.’

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