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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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