PAUL HOLMES: Digene's duplicitous appearance counteracts the accolades its cervical cancer test merits

There's a mindset in the PR industry that asks, "Why take a simple, straightforward route when a more devious, deceitful alternative presents itself?"

There's a mindset in the PR industry that asks, "Why take a simple, straightforward route when a more devious, deceitful alternative presents itself?"

A report in the British newspaper The Observer presents what appears to be a recent example of this phenomenon, a campaign created by Burson-Marsteller on behalf of Digene, a US biotechnology company planning to introduce a new cervical cancer-screening test that could save the lives of thousands of women if approved by the National Health Service (NHS). By all accounts, the new test is a wonderful thing. Anyone interested in the fight against cervical cancer would almost certainly applaud its acceptance by the NHS. So if you wanted to create an alliance of women - consumers, celebrities, and medical opinion leaders - to lobby on behalf of this test, you might choose to go to them and say, "Hi. We're a big biotech company. We know you probably don't trust us, even though we make products that save thousands of lives every year, because we're a big biotech company. But we have these cool new tests and we think that if you sit down with our experts and learn about them, you'll agree that they're a good thing. Maybe, you'll even want to help us get them approved." You could do that, but you likely would not. That kind of direct approach is no fun. It's far better to create a group with a high-minded name like European Women for HPV Testing (to distinguish it from all those groups that oppose testing) and then write women on the group's letterhead. You could even put out a press release from the group which announces its support for your product. The upside to the latter approach is that you don't have to go through all the messy formality of explaining who you are and what you're up to. The downside is that when your involvement becomes public - as it inevitably will in this age of transparency - it makes you look somewhat duplicitous when The Observer reports that celebrities such as Elizabeth Hurley had no idea that Digene was behind the group that enlisted their support. A Digene spokeswoman quoted in the story says the company had been "very transparent" and stated up front that Digene funded the group. A visit to the group's website a few days after the Observer story broke even found a prominent mention that it was funded by an "unrestricted grant" by the company. However, this front-group approach makes it look as though the company has something to hide, when in reality this is an instance in which corporate and the public's interest coincide. That's a cause for open celebration, so why even risk the appearance of obfuscation?
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 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

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