Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Should big PR firms that represent drug companies also run scientific societies’ media operations?

with 9 comments

There’s a brewing embargo story that is making me mad this week. I’ll say more about that in a bit. But in digging into it, I found what I think is a bigger story.

It turns out that Cohn & Wolfe, one of the world’s largest premier PR and communications firms, is running the press office at the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL) conference that starts at the end of the month.

That made me curious.

It’s certainly understandable that a society that took press relations seriously but didn’t have the budget to hire a full-time press office staff would outsource. Plenty do, and there are groups that serve this function very well. One that comes to mind is RiceMason, which runs press operations for a number of UK and European scientific societies. Its principals — Emma Mason and Mary Rice — will be familiar to Embargo Watch readers because they’re always responsive to feedback and have even urged some societies to change their misguided policies.

But there’s a big difference between Cohn & Wolfe and RiceMason: One also represents drug companies with interests at scientific meetings, and one doesn’t.

I’m sure you can guess which is which, but here’s a hint. Cohn & Wolfe has won awards for campaigns they’ve run for Merck and Roche, both of which make hepatitis drugs. The firm doesn’t make its full client list public, but those are two clients I found on a list of awards it has won.

And this is not an anomaly. Cohn & Wolfe also handles press for the European League Against Rheumatism (EULAR) conference. They even won a Communique award for their work with that society (scroll down). Roche and Merck both make drugs for rheumatoid arthritis. So does Genzyme, whom Cohn & Wolfe represents.

Cohn & Wolfe is not the only such firm with this business line.Austria’s B&K promotes their conference media services while representing a large number of drug companies. Tonic Life was proud to have landed the ECCO cancer meeting contract (which they apparently no longer have), while representing a similar number of such companies.

This seems like a conflict of interest to me. A firm paid to promote a number of drug companies now runs the media operations of a meeting where research funded by those companies — or their competitors. Such companies are notorious for angling for press attention at meetings, setting up their own press conferences, for example, in violation of society peer review and other regulations. How can a company that represents them be expected to treat them as severely as they would others?

I haven’t seen this at any U.S. meetings yet. Does this happen in the US? The American Society of Hypertension meeting‘s PR was outsourced to Chamberlain, which represents Novartis — a company that makes blood pressure drugs, among others. But as far as I can tell, Chamberlain doesn’t have any drug companies for clients. [Paragraph updated at 3:30 p.m. Eastern, 3/9/11.]

I’ve asked the EASL secretary general for comment, and will update if I hear back. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from Embargo Watch readers. Is this kosher?

By the way, about the situation that’s making me mad: I’ve known about it since before others started writing about it, but I’ve been very careful not to say very much. That’s because the abstract in question is technically embargoed, even if it’s freely available to the public — and Wall Street, you’ll learn, if you read this story by Adam Feuerstein at TheStreet.com.

I’ll just say this: The society has acknowledged that this is a break, but says they won’t lift the embargo early. OK, I’ll say one more thing: That’s a dead-wrong, indefensible position, on at least two levels.

Please see an update with comment from the EASL Secretary-General.


Written by Ivan Oransky

March 9, 2011 at 3:00 pm

9 Responses

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  1. I’m of two minds about the outsourced press room issue. About 90% of me says, yes, this is definitely a conflict. But the other 10% can imagine some ways there wouldn’t be a conflict.

    Small PR firm with pharma and society clients: always a conflict.
    Huge PR firm with hundreds of clients, including pharma and societies: maybe not.

    If totally separate divisions of the large PR firm were handling pharma and societies, there would be no conflict if there were a church-state wall between them.

    Or suppose that a PR firm handles only a pharmaceutical company’s line of psychiatric drugs. Then it’s possible it could run a liver meeting without conflict.

    But I think those scenarios are fairly far fetched. And even with those, even if there were no actual conflicts of interest, there would certainly be the perception of a conflict.

    I think reporters should complain about this. But frankly I think that competing pharmaceutical companies have reason to complain even louder. How much of a fair shake will they receive when their competitor’s PR firm is running the press room and choosing which stories to highlight?

    Bob Finn

    March 9, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    • Well-reasoned thoughts, Bob, and I especially agree that competitors should be outraged.

      I have to say I’ve never seen a big PR firm with a “church-state wall” internally, as you’ve described here (and how would they prove that to one’s satisfaction?). Even if a PR firm offered its services pro bono to a scientific society for such a purpose, the entire operation would be considered a way to demonstrate skills and get new business for the firm, just as this foray might. (It has to be billed somewhere, in the end.) Even without an apparent conflict, the firm might easily have another agenda than the research at hand–its own marketing and future client base. The society signs up for much more than press room help with such an arrangement.

      Denise Graveline

      March 9, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    • Good point re. situations where there may not be a conflict.

      In my experience as a marketing consultant (different from PR but similar state of play) we often came across the conflict of interest issue – usually when a prospective client raised concerns about our involvement with competitors in their industry.

      While the agency was quick to make promises about 100% partitioned teams, secure sub-directories, and the like, the reality was that none of this came to pass.

      At the end of the day, agencies whose livelihood depend on getting the best results for their clients will ultimately do all in the power to get the best results for their clients and as such cannot be trusted to self-regulate.


      March 9, 2011 at 10:06 pm

  2. On the surface no.

    But did the Society approach the PR firm because it did good work for a pharmaco and wanted to reach a similar audience? If the PR firm has done good work, why wouldn’t the society want to work with it.

    Should the PR firm turn down business when approached by the society? It’s not like there are an unlimited number of clients out there.


    March 9, 2011 at 4:50 pm

  3. So not a new issue as this has been going on for years. I used to work for both PR firms (and pharma companies) and while we didn’t actively pursue these types of engagements, if they happened, it was an opportunity to showcase our work (i.e., media relations skills) to potential clients.

    As Denise says there really isn’t a church and state wall within PR firms…despite what they tell you…someone always knows what is going on.

    Should this be allowed…well I am somewhat indifferent about it, but to keep things pure/clean I would say no. There are many smaller PR firms and/or freelancers who can handle these jobs (and would do a great job if I might add).


    March 9, 2011 at 5:44 pm

  4. should PR firms representing groups trial lawyers also represent groups that get direct funding from the same trial lawyers.. Or how about PR firms that represent hospitals, hmos, health advocacy groups like families USA also handle PR for meetings for health affairs or federal agencies such as ahrq.

    This obsession with drug company coi reveals a deep bias bordering on addiction…

    Bob goldberg

    March 10, 2011 at 12:35 am

  5. I cannot speak on behalf of Cohn & Wolfe, but I can say that I work for a PR agency that sensitively handles brief for corporate clients and not-for-profit/educational institutions at the same time and in a completely ethical way. It is not in the agency’s interest to blur these boundaries. If EASL in anyway suspect C&W are giving preferential treatment or providing privilaged information to a corporate sponsor then it will damage the agency’s reputation and future business potential. As Julie points out, this is not something new. It can be done without anyone’s interests being compromised.


    March 10, 2011 at 6:15 am

  6. I say traif. Definitely traif. (=not kosher)


    March 10, 2011 at 7:18 am

  7. Sounds about as kosher as a bacon sandwich to me.


    March 10, 2011 at 9:49 am

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