Health writers slam ‘opinion leader’ approach

The PR tactic of promoting the views of ‘key opinion leaders’ to journalists as part of drug promotion campaigns has been slammed by two national health writers in parliament’s ongoing inquiry on ‘The Influence of the Pharmaceutical Industry’.

Sunday Times medical editor Lois Rogers told an influential committee of MPs that any PR consultant flagging up an individual as an ‘opinion leader’ – physicians who influence their peers’ practice – would deter her from consulting or quoting that person as she would ‘think they were in the pocket of a drug company’.

Daily Mail medical correspondent Jenny Hope, one of five witnesses at the 16 December health select committee meeting, added: ‘The PR industry sets great store by opinion leaders, which mystifies me.’

The courting of key opinion leaders has become so widespread as a PR tactic that the practice even has its own jargon, being shortened to ‘KOL development’.

Rogers went on to describe the ‘almost daily’ calls from PROs about disease awareness campaigns as ‘irritants’.

The Department of Health’s PR operation also came under fire, with Rogers claiming she had ‘recently’ spent ‘ten days of daily phonecalls’ contacting the DoH on the issue of ‘adverse reactions’ to drugs – and that ‘the impression given [by the slow response time] is that the department is assisting manufacturers in withholding information’.

A DoH spokesman told PRWeek: ‘The DoH has recently taken measures to make pharma regulation more transparent.

‘Detailed requests for information on pharma products often require sorting of giant datasets by the regulatory body, meaning the response cannot be immediate – but responses are always made to journalists.’

He added: ‘Informing the public on adverse reactions to products, that may cause them to be concerned about their treatment, must be done in an organised and managed way.’

News analysis, p19

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