When the big story is a secret

Many biotech firms find themselves in the unenviable position of having innovative products to shout about, but FDA regulations force them to keep mum

Many biotech firms find themselves in the unenviable position of having innovative products to shout about, but FDA regulations force them to keep mum

It was only three years ago that La Jolla, CA-based biotech company Ambrx was a few scientists and an idea. Now in 2006, it is a full-fledged biopharmaceutical firm with more than 50 employees; a new CEO, Martin Mattingly, formerly of CancerVax; and a mission to deliver breakthrough protein therapeutics.

It wasn't a short path, but Mattingly understood that one of the vital roles he had to play as CEO was a marketing and communications one. The company's visibility began to take flight when Ambrx hired biotech specialist Noonan Russo, a division of Euro RSCG Life PR, but the challenge was real: There was no considerable product or scientific breakthrough to sell. How to get the name out there? How to speak to not only consumers, but potential investors, business partners, and to reel in employees - among them, the most talented scientists?

"If you're an early-stage company [without] clinical trials starting, people think, 'Yada, yada, yada,'" Mattingly says. "It's hard to get attention. The story of curing mice of cancer has been told. When [a company is] that young, it's tough. How do you brand the company and get people's attention?"

Noonan Russo didn't have that product, or a breaking news item, to pitch to the networks and get the Ambrx name out in the public. But that is not what it's about, says David Schull, SVP and MD of the agency's San Diego office.

"It's a misnomer," he says. "Good PR has nothing to do with [only] taking information and distributing it. That is the Ambrx story through and through."

The firm looked at the opportunities Ambrx had in front of it: briefings with science reporters; inclusion of the Ambrx name in larger, feature stories in both consumer titles and biotech journals; writing articles for publication; awards, such as being named to e-newsletter FierceBiotech's annual Fierce 15 list; and another avenue to raise the profile of its executives, speaking engagements.

In January, Mattingly spoke at a high-profile event, the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. After his speech, a man approached him and said he liked what he heard. Today, that man's company is one of Ambrx's investment partners.

If a biotech waits until it has a product to make a public profile, it can take 15 years and $800 million. That, on average, is how long it takes for a pharma to get a product from the initial stages of development to a packaged product on the market. Firms may be making great therapeutic developments that they want to talk about, but the Food and Drug Administration process keeps them stuck.

In the meantime, the company has to maintain some sort of public profile, make its executives known, and create a brand.

Lorie Fiber, director of the life sciences division at Edelman, says her team's approach is to create a visibility campaign. Along with getting clients' speakers on panels, Edelman commonly educates the public about what the client's company does differently. The team hosts reporter education events, similar to R&D days. It also contacts reporters to offer clients' expertise on hot topics, such as personalized medicine and obesity.

PR firms can use these opportunities to talk with journalists about biotech topics that are misunderstood or reported incorrectly.

Leveraging partnerships

MaryAnn Guerra, COO of Arizona's Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), says the nonprofit highlights its partnerships to get its name out there. TGen has been featured in full-page Wall Street Journal ads owing to its partnerships with companies like Oracle and IBM, whose software helps the institute process data. IBM ran one such ad touting its work with TGen, about giving hope and the power of genomics. Such exposure is very valuable for TGen's reputation, Guerra says.

"[The ads] help with our credibility immensely," she attests.

In fact, the partnerships benefit both parties, whether it's business-side, like IBM; academic, such as its ties with Arizona State University; or in-industry, such as healthcare company Moffett.

"[Partners] get excited about that, and it gives them a good name, too," she says. "We try to stay poised as to who we partner with to take TGen to the next level. And [we ask] how are those partnerships developing science."

Manning Selvage & Lee's work with Pharmion is another example getting a client's name out with or without a product, said Kelly McKenna, co-practice head and VP of West Coast global health in the firm's San Francisco office.

Colorado-based Pharmion develops products for the treatment of hematology and oncology patients. When products are still in the testing and approval phases, MS&L keeps Pharmion in the news by making its executives visible in a variety of channels.

"We usually recommend clear, consistent messaging," McKenna explains. "Even if you have a product to promote, we suggest building a corporate image apart from the brand. The ideal is to have strong senior management... who can talk to industry trends."


The keys to communicating in a vacuum

David Walsey, corporate communications director at Arena Pharmaceuticals, describes how his company gets messages out:

PRWeek: Who's on your team?
Walsey: I lead and work with a communications associate.

PRWeek: Who has permission to speak to what audiences?
Walsey: Our senior management is very active. The CEO and chief scientific officer are committed to communications, speaking to investors, analysts, and the media. They do the bulk of the direct communications.

PRWeek: How do you decide what you can and can't say?
Walsey: Internally we decided to be transparent. It improves credibility and, ultimately, shareholder value. [With the media and investors,] certain things you hold back for competitive reasons and others for minutia.

PRWeek: What internal communications do you do?
Walsey: We don't have an elaborate communications [structure], but we have periodic corporate meetings where the CEO makes presentations, and we also distribute press releases.

Biotech PR pros use dozens of strategies to get clients' names in the public, including:

Enlisting corporate executives at speaking engagements

Applying for awards and announcing the wins

Offering the executives' expertise on issue stories

Forging bonds with journalists at several types of outlets

Leveraging business partnerships

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