CAMPAIGNS: Wag Ed education effort boosts AVI's credibility, stocks

PR team: AVI BioPharma (Portland, OR) and Waggener Edstrom Bioscience (Lake Oswego, OR) Campaign: "We saved Arisco the penguin" Time frame: August 2002 to September 2003 Budget: $11,000 to $15,000 monthly

PR team: AVI BioPharma (Portland, OR) and Waggener Edstrom Bioscience (Lake Oswego, OR) Campaign: "We saved Arisco the penguin" Time frame: August 2002 to September 2003 Budget: $11,000 to $15,000 monthly

Waggener Edstrom (Wag Ed) was approached by AVI BioPharma in the winter of 2002. The 23-year-old biotech was suffering from lack of attention, as the credibility of its therapeutic platform, antisense, had been tarnished by poor clinical results of competitors. As a backdrop, falling share prices and the fallout from the ImClone Systems scandal had made the reactionary biotech market more jittery. Plus, early-stage biotech research tended to receive little attention from the media. Strategy The agency was entrusted with building credibility for the company's therapeutic platform with investors, analysts, and potential partners, and changing news coverage from neutral local earnings announcements to positive discussions of antisense's potential. Because there were only two other main players in the antisense category, Isis and Genta, AVI's business was affected whenever a milestone passed, positive or negative. So, says Jenny Moede, VP at Waggener Edstrom Bioscience, "We knew we had to educate a couple of key science reporters so they would understand how AVI's third-generation antisense platform was an improvement, and different from others." Tactics Wag Ed made media relations the center of its program, and began by developing a reporter-education program. The agency displayed its knowledge of AVI's viral program by approaching reporters interested in the nation's growing concern about viral threats. It built relations with key national media outlets by educating them about the antisense therapeutic category in an attempt to overcome the decade-old idea that antisense once had potential, but failed in practice. Educational meetings also were held with reporters and AVI executives. Further into the effort, AVI began to suspect that its approach also would work against the West Nile Virus. Wag Ed learned of an outbreak of West Nile in penguins at the Milwaukee County Zoo and informed AVI scientists, who, in turn, contacted the zoo's vet. Within days, the biotech company shipped the zoo an antisense compound, and three infected penguins were treated. Two of the three recovered, and one never exhibited symptoms. Results Following an educational meeting, The Wall Street Journal ran an article about a trial of AVI's antiviral antisense in kittens. Ultimately a story about AVI's antisense platform appeared on the front page of the paper's Marketplace section. Subsequently, features also ran in The Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and other print outlets, reaching 15 million readers. More than 8 million watched the broadcast coverage. The increased coverage resulted in a higher share price for AVI, which allowed the firm to assemble a $22 million PIPE financing with an investment bank. The stock price stabilized at $5 to $7, up from a low of $1.88. Also, as a result of The Washington Post coverage, the chief of staff from the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations invited AVI's CEO Denis Burger to testify before the subcommittee about the SARS virus. Future Wag Ed still works with AVI on the same strategy. Moede says, "A lot more people know about antisense now, but you have to keep pressing forward to show that things are advancing on the science side. Emerging viruses are a hot button with the press right now, so we continue to pursue that by promoting the progress AVI is making with their clinical work. As that evolves, so does the story."

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