CAMPAIGNS: Keeping abreast of the risks of HRT - Crisis Management

Over the past four years, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) has conducted a study of over 160,000 women, examining the links between HRT and breast cancer. Co-ordinated by Professor Valerie Beral, director of ICRF’s epidemiology unit at Oxford University, the study reviewed 51 projects from 21 countries and analysed over 90 per cent of the published research on the topic. The findings were due to be published at the end of October.

Over the past four years, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF)

has conducted a study of over 160,000 women, examining the links between

HRT and breast cancer. Co-ordinated by Professor Valerie Beral, director

of ICRF’s epidemiology unit at Oxford University, the study reviewed 51

projects from 21 countries and analysed over 90 per cent of the

published research on the topic. The findings were due to be published

at the end of October.



However, inaccurate data was leaked to the Sunday Times. In the early

hours of Sunday 5 October, ICRF realised the paper was running a

misleading story stating the risk of developing breast cancer for some

HRT users was more than double that of non users. The charity had a

potential disaster on its hands.



Objectives



To ensure that the Sunday Times article did not escalate into a

worldwide panic among women using HRT, the ICRF needed to squash the

story in the media. Subsequently, the charity wanted to release its

official report findings into the public domain quickly, but in a

controlled, responsible way.



Tactics



On the Sunday morning, ICRF head of communications Ardi Kolah rang round

the news desks of the broadcast media to ensure that coverage was kept

to a minimum. This resulted in an interview at 1.30am on Independent

Radio News urging women not to panic and ITN and BBC TV News ignoring

the story.



Kolah then contacted the national newspapers to ensure that any coverage

on the Monday was well balanced. The media was also given access to ICRF

director general, Dr Paul Nurse.



The charity brought in crisis management expert Michael Bland and moved

publication of its findings in the Lancet forward, to the end of the

week.



A press conference was hastily arranged for 9 October, with speakers

including report authors Professor Beral and Sir Richard Doll. The event

also gave journalists access to the technical report, setting the small

increased risk of breast cancer to HRT users in perspective.



Results



Initial media coverage following the Sunday Times story was kept to a

minimum and focused on benefits to HRT users - increased protection

against heart disease and osteoporosis - as well as links to breast

cancer.



ICRF estimates that the press conference generated over 500 news items,

ranging across UK broadcast news programmes and national newspapers to

Channel 7 in Australia and the NBC cable network in the US. On the day,

Dr Nurse conducted live interviews on Radio 4’s Today programme and Sky

News, and appeared on local radio networks by ISDN link.



Verdict



ICRF turned a potential scare into a positive news story. This was

achieved by acting swiftly and decisively.



Guardian medical correspondent Chris Mihill says: ’It was a classic

example of how to handle a crisis.’ He thinks the charity’s openness and

honesty was the key. By allowing full access to the report findings and

authors, the media got the information it wanted.



Client: Imperial Cancer Research Fund

PR Team: In-house and Michael Bland

Campaign: The link between HRT and breast cancer

Timescale: October 1997

Cost: Undisclosed



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