Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Why So Few News Releases at Medical Meetings?

When covering medical meetings became a routine part of my job, I was surprised at how few news releases I found in the press rooms. Sure, the big meetings—the ASCOs, the AHAs, the RSNAs—would have a decent number of news releases, but even those had fewer than I would have expected.

I started my in science writing career in the public relations office of a major university. Part of my job involved writing news releases on important scientific advances. I was pretty successful at this; on a number of occasions articles sparked by my press releases ended up on the front page of the New York Times and other major publications. I discovered that reporters are essentially lazy. If you hand them a tasty morsel on a silver platter, they're more likely to take it than an equally tasty morsel they have to dig for. This is no insult to reporters; we all have a limited amount of time, so it's not surprising that we take the story that's handed to us. Furthermore, reporters are subject to competitive pressures. When there's a news release attached to a research result, I know that my competition is likely to pick up the story, and if they do and I don't, my editor will want to know why we were scooped.

Every university and virtually every hospital in the United States has a public relations, media relations, or public information office. Every one of those offices employs writers whose job is to promote the institution's research. A medium-sized medical meeting will include talks from researchers representing several dozen institutions, and the large medical meetings will include talks from researchers representing hundreds of different institutions. Why then is it unusual for me to find more than a handful of news releases at all but the largest meetings? Here are some possible answers:

  • Most of the research studies presented at medical meetings are not newsworthy. They involve minor advances that are of interest only to a narrow handful of specialists. This is the best excuse a public information officer can give for not issuing a news release. You don't want your institution to become known for issuing news releases on research that is not newsworthy, because reporters will quickly learn to toss all news releases from your institution into the circular file.

But this doesn't explain why so many truly newsworthy studies from institutions with large PR offices are unaccompanied by news releases.

  • There are different levels of newsworthiness. Some studies are of interest to the lay public and the mass media, and PR folks tend to focus on these studies, ignoring studies that would be quite newsworthy to the trade press. To many researchers, having their study covered by Oncology Times (for example) would confer more prestige among their peers than having it covered by the New York Times. (Maybe that's a little bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point.)

  • In my experience, the main reason that PR folks often don't issue news releases to accompany an interesting talk at a medical meeting is that they simply don't know about it. Calling the PR office is often the last thing on a researcher's mind when she's about to present an interesting paper at a meeting. Getting the data together, practicing her talk, and making airline reservations all take priority.

There are several things that a PR person can do about this. She can cultivate relationships with researchers, their postdocs and graduate students, and even departmental secretaries. Merely asking, "Are you going to be presenting any interesting results soon?" will often do the trick.

At big institutions, of course, it won't be possible to cultivate relationships in every lab. But a least one can cultivate relationships in every department. The department chair will often know who's about to present important results.

And it's worthwhile cultivating relationships with the PR folks at the societies sponsoring the major meetings. In a perfect world, those PR folks would be contacting the PR folks at the major universities a month or so before the meeting with a list of all that institution's presenters and the titles of their talks. Some societies, notably the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), have this down to, well, down to a science. But if this isn't a standard part of meeting prep for, say, the American Association for the Advancement of Liposuction, or if their press office sucks (ha), the AAAL PR person can often be persuaded to allow the university PR person advanced access to the meeting program, where she could search for her institution's researchers.

I suppose I've spent an evening in a hotel room writing this this because I'm one of those lazy journalists who loves to find several meaty news releases in the meeting's press room, or better still, on Eurekalert or Newswise a week in advance. Not one institution has issued even a single news release at the meeting I'm at now, even though I've found several very interesting stories from this meeting. This includes the first results from a very large and groundbreaking study from a top university medical center demonstrating the superiority of one surgical technique over another. I think hundreds or thousands of lives may be saved when this result is disseminated throughout the medical community, but as far as I know I'm the only reporter who attended this talk and realized its importance.


Kjerstin said...

I think you're just too right about PR people not knowing what goes on at their own institutions. Not only do scientists often feel they can't be bothered with talking to the PR department (if it enters their mind at all) on top of everything else they have to do, but many institutions do not have a culture for trying to get media attention – it's considered disloyal, like you're trying to push yourself forward at the expence of your colleagues. When I was working in a PR department, it was important to, as you say, cultivate relationships in the labs. The problem was that you would then get lots of useless tips in addition to the few useful ones, and at the same time the scientist working next door to your tipper, could happen to be doing fantastically interesting research without you ever getting to know. Sometimes we wouldn't even know that a conference would take place at our university.

Still, at least at my institution, things are slowly changing. Scientists realise more and more that getting their results out there is part of their job, and the PR department is more professional and has more resources and better routines for digging stories up.

Anonymous said...

Press Release: A Well Designed Sales Pitch?

Those who release and create press releases, that are intended to offer information that is authentic and newsworthy, are possibly in collusion with various sources of the mass media who receive these announcements from others with commercial interests in mind, and instruct such media outlets with mandated authoritarian nuances, such as the press release that they created will be void of alteration of any kind of their press release as directed to the receiver by the creator and sponsor of such press releases. The sponsoring organization that composes press releases does so in order to promote their organization and its products, and this much is rather clear.
These well- constructed statements are meticulously composed and customized before they are issued to targeted editors for mass media publication at select locations and times of release by this sponsor. As this is done, the mass media outlets are again instructed on how to present their completed statements, as well as are given instructions once again not to alter these press releases in any way, others have said frequently.
Press releases are a form of public relations often utilized for those companies who create what is supposed to be an attempt to express their products that they wish to convince readers that such products are innovative or newsworthy. Press releases, historically, have been created and released to inform the readers by adding insight and related information for them regarding a particular topic that was typically complete and balanced. Today, they seem to be more or less an annotative commercial with press releases generated by corporations in particular, so it seems.
Unfortunately, and presently, press releases are often embellished, biased, and incomplete with deliberate intent in order to benefit the creator of these documents, who again develops them solely to increase awareness and usage of their products that they promote with their business, which they want to be viewed as favorable with a positive image to the public. One could suggest that the mass media who receives these press releases are transformed into mass front groups who perhaps coercively offer third party legitimacy for the content of the press release as they release this information to their readers.
The often notable if not intentional flaws at times are numerous within such press releases that reflect reckless disregard for the readers, the American Public, who believe that what they are reading is honest and complete. This, however, is not the case is certain situations.
An example is an anonymous and anonymous press release posted on the Medical News Today website ( that is dated in March of 2006. The title: "Cymbalta Safely and Effectively Treats core anxiety symptoms associated with generalized anxiety disorder." Clearly, this title itself includes words associated with relief or elation, which are subjective and not objective elements which would clearly be more appropriate, according to some, if the press release was created to inform the reader, one could say.
The first paragraph of this press release repeats the results mentioned in the title of this article, but also states Cymbalta offers relief of painful symptoms associated with anxiety, as well as improved functional impairment- also claimed to be associated with anxiety in this press release. These conclusions are speculative at best, as these inferences appear to be unexamined by others regarding the benefits claimed to exist with Cymbalta as illustrated in this press release.
Cymbalta was not approved by the FDA for anxiety or any of the symptoms associated with this condition at the time of this press release. In fact, Cymbalta was not filed with the FDA for this speculated new indication for anxiety that was desired by Eli Lilly until May of 2006. By definition, this press release may possibly be off-label promotion as well as misbranding of Cymbalta that was performed overtly in this manner of the press release, one may speculate.
As one continues to read this press release, testimonials were intentionally created and inserted into this press release that illustrated results they hope are impactful to the reader regarding Cymbalta. This testimonial was from the lead author, who expanded the claims made initially with utilizing various medical terms, which was followed by this person’s passionate optimism about the great potential of Cymbalta based on this remarkable study.
This study, by the way, was to be addressed in further detail at a National Anxiety meeting some weeks after this press release was announced to the public on this website. The second testimonial was Eli Lilly's Medical Advisor expressing his elation about what the lead author just stated, followed by how much he was encouraged by these results that will benefit so many others that have these debilitating medical conditions. Of course, profit forecasts regarding Cymbalta remarkably were not stated in this press release.
What is not included in this particular press release was any clear statements regarding the disadvantages and adverse if not toxic events associated those who take Cymbalta. Reactions from Cymbalta users include discontinuation syndrome at times, when the user stops taking this medication, which I understand can be quite devastating for the one experiencing this syndrome. Furthermore acts of suicide and suicidal ideation have been frequently associated with those who take Cymbalta as well. There have been apparent lack of efficacy suggestions by others who have taken Cymbalta. Basically, anything that may be considered negative aspects about this drug were not annotated in this particular press release as it should have been for fair balance that is standard in the pharmaceutical industry and health care journalism. The staff involved with the release and publication of such press releases as this one described should perhaps be more informed on what not to accept and what to present regarding these issues addressed.
As with any reporting by the media, objectivity and thorough completeness of the topic discussed in a press release is a necessary requirement with any publishing that is potentially exposed to so many others- more so with such medical issues in particular.

“The public has a lot at stake, and the media has a responsibility always to be aware of the source of information and the conflicts those sources might have when they report the results of clinical research. People who have financial stake in the results of clinical research can well be biased in the way research is conducted, in the way they report it, and what they say about it when interviewed by the media.” – Arnold Relman, former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine

Dan Abshear

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