Comms efforts intensify as 'Sicko' release nears

NEW YORK: Multiple parties are ramping up communications efforts this month in anticipation of the release of Sicko, Michael Moore's new film dissecting the US healthcare system.

NEW YORK: Multiple parties are ramping up communications efforts this month in anticipation of the release of Sicko, Michael Moore's new film dissecting the US healthcare system.

While the healthcare industry is reacting to what it believes will be an unbalanced view, the film's producer, The Weinstein Co. (TWC), has already assembled a communications team to promote the film, while defending it against any potential attacks.

Sarah Rothman, VP of corporate communications at TWC, said the company has brought on board Chris Lehane, who worked in the Clinton White House as well as for Al Gore's 2000 presidential run. The studio has also hired New York-based Ken Sunshine, and continues to work with Matthew Hiltzik, president and CEO of Freud Communications.

"We are believers that the best [defense] is a good offense," Lehane said in an interview conducted via e-mail. "As opposed to sitting back [in dealing with an] industry that is well known for prevaricating, distorting, and misleading in order to maintain its death grip over our society - we [will] take the fight to them."

The team says it plans to release internal documents from within the healthcare industry provided by whistleblowers in order to bring attention to drug and insurance companies' conduct. It also intends to highlight drug companies' advertising practices and create opportunities for more whistleblowers to come forward, Lehane added.

Lehane said the team is organizing a series of strategic screenings to reach key audiences, including special screenings for Bay Area and DC bloggers, as well as screenings in early primary states and state capitols where healthcare reform is now being considered.

Also being considered is a series of screenings for Wall Street analysts and hedge funds who, Lehane said, may want to see the film to help with investment decisions.

An active online effort is helping drive communications efforts for the studio, including Moore's now-infamous challenge to debate Fred Thompson, issued via the Drudge Report. In addition, the film's trailer is being premiered on America Online, an online chat is being conducted with Moore from Sicko's premiere in Cannes, and one of the women who went to Cuba in the film is blogging on The Huffington Post.

Meanwhile, the healthcare industry has begun to hit back at what it calls obvious imbalances in Sicko. Last month, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) issued a statement from its SVP Ken Johnson.

"A review of America's healthcare system should be balanced, thoughtful, and well-researched to pin down what works and what needs to be improved. You won't get that from Michael Moore," it read, in part. PhRMA did not return calls asking what further communications the organization had planned in relation to Sicko.

Merck's media relations department directed calls regarding the film to PhRMA, saying it wasn't a Merck-specific issue and the industry group was handling communications surrounding the film.

GlaxoSmithKline, which last year launched its Value for Medicine campaign to help employees communicate the positive aspects of the industry, did not return calls seeking comment. Pfizer also had not returned calls at press time.

The California Nurses Association and the National Nurses Organizing Committee are in the planning stages for nationwide efforts surrounding the film's release, according to Shum Preston, spokesperson and specialist for the organizations.

"We don't have a 'PR campaign,' we have a social movement where we are going to turn 3,000 audiences into 3,000 groups of patient advocates," Preston said.

The group was planning to have registered nurses or other patient advocates at film openings around the country. Meanwhile, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), whose district includes areas of the Bronx, held a press conference on May 23 with the two Ground Zero workers who went to Cuba with Moore for medical treatment in the film.

With Sicko set to premiere June 29, and numerous polls showing healthcare to be the number-one domestic concern for voters, Preston said he expects communications to only increase on the subject as the summer progresses.

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