EASL responds to questions about whether PR firms with drug company clients also rep scientific societies
Earlier this week, I asked: “Should big PR firms that represent drug companies also run scientific societies’ media operations?” I was prompted to wonder that after finding out that Cohn & Wolfe — whose clients include at least two hepatitis drug makers — was handling press relations for the European Association for the Study of the Liver’s (EASL) conference at the end of this month.
The question has generated a lively discussion on my original post, and today Pharmalot picked it up too, getting a comment from Cohn & Wolfe:
We have no conflict of interest, as Cohn & Wolfe has always been completely transparent with professional society clients such as the EASL about our pharmaceutical clients. Further, we have installed the proper firewalls to ensure the safeguarding of interests for all of our clients. The fact is, we have represented professional societies for several years and have never had any issues or concerns arise.
To which I would reply: Complete transparency — if that’s in fact how the agency is behaving — does not mean there is “no conflict of interest.” It just means they’re managing that conflict.
Also this morning, I heard back from the EASL Secretary General, Heiner Wedemeyer, who indicated that the organization had given a lot of thought to hiring the agency:
Concerning our partnership with Cohn and Wolfe (C&W), our collaboration was approved by the EASL General Assembly two years ago in 2009. EASL has every confidence in C&W and that their internal procedures are sufficiently robust to maintain client confidentiality with no information flowing from the account team who work for us and the account teams working for the pharmaceutical industry.
EASL has always collaborated with major PR agencies in the past and conflicts of interest have been discussed internally among the Governing Board with total transparency and the freedom to terminate any collaboration should any situation cause the need to do so. Other sister liver societies are also using external PR agencies, and this is not such unusual practice. Cohn and Wolfe are simply implementing the decisions made by the Governing Board on behalf and for the good sake of EASL.
Wedemeyer also responded to my questions about EASL’s embargo policy, which is what prompted me to look into the situation to begin with. To recap: Conference abstracts have been available since last week, but are considered embargoed for the media. That hasn’t stopped Wall Street analysts from describing the data, which meant that news outlets have begun writing about at least one of them.
It’s a freely available but embargoed scenario, one of my pet peeves. But to add insult to injury, a Cohn & Wolfe rep told me that while EASL considers all of the commentary to be an embargo break, they won’t actually lift any of the embargoes early.
Here’s Wedemeyer’s response to my questions on that:
The EASL Governing Board and I, as EASL Secretary General, understand the points you have raised.
EASL is an independent non-profit association driven by a Governing Board that is elected by an assembly of peers, to whom all Governing Board members are reporting. Among other duties, we, as the Governing Board, are responsible for building the scientific program of the International Liver Congress™ which is the main event of our association (ref. the EASL Constitution). Therefore, after selecting the scientific data, that we feel is of interest to our scientific community, the purpose of EASL is then to share this in the context of its annual congress. The aim of the International Liver Congress™ is to foster interaction, to promote informal and lively discussion of technical challenges, and new advances in our field between young fellows and senior faculty from all over the world. This is the reason why we have placed an embargo on the data that will be presented during the congress. We strongly believe in the importance of exchange and in the education of generations of hepatologists in their daily practice with patients and this is why experts attend the International Liver Congress™ by EASL.
We consider that it is more important to have people attending our congress to share and discuss scientific information than to have people not attending this major event simply due to the fact that data has already been made freely available to the public.
I appreciate his candid response. But with all due respect, the rationale doesn’t make any sense. There isn’t really an embargo on the material. There’s only a media embargo. Any liver specialist who wanted to could go straight to the abstracts and read them. So can the public. I’m really not sure how a media-only embargo — which is untenable anyway — will have any effect on whether doctors and researchers attend the conference.
But EASL may be thinking the same thing:
We shall take your comments into serious consideration and the EASL Governing Board will review the embargo for next year in order to have a more consistent set of rules in place for 2012.
I look forward to the outcome of that review, and hope I can add EASL to the Embargo Watch honor roll of societies that have changed their “freely available but embargoed” policies.