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