MEDIA ROUNDUP: Pharma coverage responds to treatment changes

With patients researching treatment options on their own and the media now educated about pharmaceuticals, PR efforts are focusing as much on diseases as on their cures.

With patients researching treatment options on their own and the media now educated about pharmaceuticals, PR efforts are focusing as much on diseases as on their cures.

Sometimes lost in the overall debate on healthcare - and in the criticism of drug companies for the profits they reap - is the fact that we're in the midst of revolution in modern medicine. Many of these dramatic changes are being driven by pharmaceutical companies, which invest billions annually to develop new drugs to treat everything from baldness to depression to cancer. "There's been a paradigm shift in how people are treated," notes William Black, SVP/partner with Fleishman-Hillard in Washington, DC. "Drugs [used to be] a small part of the package of healthcare that people received. But to the credit of the pharmaceutical industry, they've found more and more things they can treat or even cure." The media has played a major role in the rise of this new generation of miracle drugs, and not just through editorial. Pharmaceutical companies have successfully used aggressive advertising strategies to the point where consumers now go into doctors' offices and request specific drug brands. Despite the fact that outside of the financial press and a few dedicated trade outlets, there are few reporters whose sole beat is pharmaceuticals, Todd Ringler, health media director with Edelman, says, "You are seeing an increase in reporting on the pharmaceutical industries and therapies." He adds that much of this coverage is being done by the growing legions of biotech reporters, who cover new drugs from both the business and science angles. Even most general-health reporters have kept pace with the ever-increasing changes in pharmaceuticals. Ame Wadler, chairman of the healthcare practice at Burson-Marsteller, says, "Most reporters we deal with have a pretty sophisticated knowledge of the issues impacting pharmaceuticals. Clearly the top-tier media have a lot of experience. They get it." But in many ways, pharmaceutical journalists have had to get more sophisticated, in part because their audience now knows more than ever about ailments and their treatments. Marion Glick, VP of healthcare media relations at Porter Novelli, says beginning in the 1980s when the AIDS-afflicted community took it upon itself to learn about treatment, consumers have been doing their own research instead of relying solely on doctors. "We're seeing that in so many populations right now, such as cancer groups," she says. "Patients no longer view their doctor as some sort of Marcus Welby, MD-like figure, but rather as a partner in their healthcare." Focus on disease and cure alike The PR surrounding pharmaceuticals is as much about the disease as it is about the cure, especially for products still going through the lengthy FDA approval process. "If it's pre-approval, most of the PR work is focused on disease awareness," says Tony Russo, CEO of Euro RSCG NRP. "After approval, perhaps you shift your focus to more on the drug." Part of this is because reporters have almost too many healthcare issues - as well as new drugs - to write about. "Most reporters don't even want to deal with information about drugs until they get into Phase 3 testing," says David Catlett, director of Ketchum's global healthcare practice. But Ringler says you can still get coverage of early-stage breakthroughs in drugs by getting stories in key trade and medical outlets, since many of the top mainstream reporters get leads by reading these journals themselves. PR people also note that pharmaceuticals require different strategies for media outreach. "We do far fewer press releases than you might imagine, partially because of the complexity of the story, but also because we know the reporters and know their beats," explains Wadler. "We try to shape the story for each of the reporters. We might have the core of our story, but give each of the major reporters we deal with a different take on it." Among the key reporters covering pharmaceuticals are Scott Hensley and Ron Winslow of The Wall Street Journal; business reporter Melody Peterson and health/science reporters Larry Altman, Gina Kolata, and Andy Pollack of The New York Times; USA Today's Rita Rubin and Tim Friend; The Washington Post's Sally Squires; Geoff Cowley of Newsweek, Dr. Ian Smith, who contributes to the Today show and Time magazine; and Roger Sergel, medical-news producer at ABC. Audience interest remains high Despite the cutbacks in other beats, pharmaceutical coverage has escaped largely unscathed because interest in health and medical stories have rated high in every audience and viewer poll since the 1950s. But Glick notes that other news - especially terrorism and current international conflicts - has made the health news hole smaller in recent years, impacting drug coverage. "They still do it, but it's not going to be a 'gee whiz' pharmaceutical feature, it's going to be about anthrax and smallpox," she says. "And with a lot of staff reporters taken up with those stories, you still have the wire services covering medical meetings and journals, but you lose out on some of the enterprise pieces." Where pharmaceutical- and drug-related coverage is on the rise is in the public-policy arena. Given that virtually every politician in Washington has promised some sort of prescription-drug program, Fleishman-Hillard's Black says pharmaceuticals will likely remain a dominant national healthcare issue for the foreseeable future. Ironically, this debate is being waged without the direct, public input of drug companies. "Mostly, they work through their trade association, PhRma [Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturing Association]," says Catlett. Black adds that most of the prescription-drug debate in Washington is being covered by political reporters with little or no interest in the drug companies or their products. "In many ways, it's being covered like an election, so it's the horse race," he says. "Most of the coverage of this is who's got the political advantage right now." As with most media topics, print is generally the first target for PR professionals pitching pharmaceutical stories. Given the broad interest in health and the latest drugs, there's also much coverage to be had on TV, especially the morning news shows. "On all the morning network shows, they tend to be news you can use, such as the Good Morning America's Healthy Woman segment," says Glick. "The thing about television is it requires visuals, so that can mean a very articulate patient and their doctor." Glick adds that other criteria include the prevalence of the disease the new drug is designed to treat. "Roger Sergel, medical producer at ABC, is concerned with how many people have this disease, because he's interested in what his audience needs to know," she says. There are also some opportunities for drug coverage on radio, especially in local markets, Glick says. "A lot of health talk shows specialize in their audience, so if you're doing a drug for arthritis and they target seniors, that's a bull's-eye hit," she explains. There are also plenty of chances to place stories on the internet, although many PR people suggest that pharmaceutical coverage has suffered somewhat with the dot-com collapse, with most medical sites running straight wire stories rather than original reporting. "It's still part of the media mix, but people aren't as fixated on the web as they were a couple years ago," says Catlett. ----- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; The Boston Globe; The Washington Post; The Miami Herald; LA Times; USA Today Magazines Time; Newsweek; Sunset; Ladies Home Journal; Men's Health; Prevention; Shape; US News & World Report; Popular Science Trade Titles Journal of the American Medical Association; New England Journal of Medicine; Scrip; Clinica; Biocentury; Pharmaceutical Executive; Bioworld; Medical Marketing & Media; FDA Pink Sheets; Pharmacy Times; US Pharmacist; Drug Store News; Chain Drug Review; Pharmacy Practice News Television Morning news shows; CNNfn; CNBC; CNN; Oxygen; Discovery Web WebMD

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