HOLMES REPORT: Companies can't rely solely on industry trade groups to take a public stand against activists

One of the most compelling speakers at the recent Biotechnology Industry Organization conference, held in San Francisco this month, wasn't a researcher or a venture capitalist, but a representative of a special agency with the FBI.

One of the most compelling speakers at the recent Biotechnology Industry Organization conference, held in San Francisco this month, wasn't a researcher or a venture capitalist, but a representative of a special agency with the FBI.

Philip Celestini, who supervises the bureau's operations against animal and environmental extremists, was there to warn attendees that most of their companies were on a list of more than 1,000 potential corporate targets circulating among activists and to urge them to take a more public stand on the issue. Describing radical animal rights groups as "the country's leading domestic terrorist threat," Celestini acknowledged that the FBI had been slow to respond to the threat, but warned that the biotech and pharma industries had been even slower. "The biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries have not raised this as a strategic issue," he said. "There is a certain amount of denial going on, but until the issue is addressed it won't go away." The reluctance among individual companies - and especially among individual scientists - to take a stand on the use of animals in medical research is understandable. Anyone who becomes a spokesman for the industry on this issue is likely to go on activists' hit lists. So companies continue to delegate leadership on the issue to trade associations. Those groups do an admirable job, but are often reduced to responding to angry rhetoric and graphic images with dry facts about the benefits of research. To counter the emotional appeal of the activists, the industry needs individuals - both researchers and the patients whose lives they have saved - to tell their equally powerful stories. Some companies have stepped up, including Chiron, whose corporate resources VP told the conference that about 30 of its employees had been harassed by animal-rights extremists, prompting the company to become more vocal on the issue. And some individuals are speaking out, including Michael DeBakey, who performed many of the first heart transplants in the US and developed the first M.A.S.H. units back in the 1940s. In a recent interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, DeBakey hit out at animal rights "terrorists" and talked about the benefits of research - including the fact that a tracheal operation and hysterectomy made possible by animal experiments extended the life of his Yorkshire terrier by six years. Perhaps, at 96, DeBakey figures he has less to lose in stepping up than do his younger colleagues. But the pharma and biotech industries need more people like him, scientists with the courage of their convictions, to tell their stories. If they keep hiding behind faceless trade groups, medical research in the US could go the way of the UK, where activists have virtually shut the industry down.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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