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Reporting restrictions

Pharma needs to be open and honest with the press about the limits of the Code

A man tangled up in telephone cordIt's the Christmas party season and journalists will be counting their invitations to various lavish events. The showbiz hacks will have the tickets to the flashy ones with head-turning guests, while the city journalists will, despite the recession, enjoy gatherings in fashionable locations.

What about the health journalists? Will it be the usual white wine and buffet in Richmond House, and then the shuffle home?

When it comes to being entertained, we health journalists get a raw deal. While our colleagues are jetting off around the world to interview celebrities, we get to visit the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) office in Holborn. They get treated at the Ivy, and we get a sausage roll after a briefing, if we're lucky.

It was not always like this. Pharmaceutical companies used to be happy to send their head of communications out to meet correspondents armed with a large expense account and a thirst to boot.

But over the last 15 years, the nature of hospitality towards journalists from the pharma industry has changed beyond recognition – as it has for doctors – because of the updated Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) Code. The difference is that where it has been explicit in the Code for doctors, it has not been the same for us hacks.

Hospitality may be considered trivial by some: merely the icing on the cake of an already interesting job for journalists, which they can do without (I exaggerate to make a point), but the more important issue is the changing way information is delivered to journalists because of the Code.

Press releases on pharmaceutical data have changed dramatically over the last few years, as has the way PRs speak to journalists about that information. The problem is that, while those in the industry and their agencies know all about this and why it's occurred, there is confusion among journalists on the receiving end.

See it from our point of view. Daily health correspondents are bombarded with press releases and calls from medical charities, science bodies, universities, hospitals, consumer companies and PR agencies, with no rules on what they can say.

We have to read them all, analyse which are the best and why, and put that information into a couple of sound bites to persuade our news editor it is interesting enough to put in the paper, all the time competing against showbiz, sport, crime and the other sections. All this has to be completed by 10.30am for a morning conference.

As a result, the best releases, as far as we're concerned, tell the story in the first two short paragraphs, with a succinct subject field. The medical journals, which cover similar stories to pharma, do not have the same restrictions as the industry, and their press officers write clear, informative releases. Look at the BMJ's offerings; they are a blessing to journalists.

Then we are sent press releases from PR companies on behalf of pharma. Sometimes the story is clear, but in many cases, the significance of the data is lost because it has been hidden in the attempts to be fair and balanced. Do I think that potentially good stories have gone in the bin because journalists have not had the time to figure them out? Most likely.

It all becomes a vicious circle. The journalists blame the PRs for the 'unhelpful' releases and lack of case studies, the PRs blame their clients for the restrictions, the clients blame the Code. Meanwhile, the ABPI, which writes the Code, says the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA), which enforces the Code, should inform the journalists about the issue. That association says informing doctors about the Code is its priority at the moment, but it has in the past, and will again, target journalists.

From a pharmaceutical marketer's point of view, it is very easy to blame the journalists and argue that they should be trained well enough to be able to interpret and rate complex information correctly and quickly. However, given the current time pressures, I think that is a little idealistic. Even the writers on broadsheets and senior journalists on all titles have to turn copy round increasingly quickly for it to appear within two hours on the web. Gone are the glorious days of writing one or two stories really well with a 5pm deadline.

Given all these pressures, it is unsurprising that the details of the changes to the Code and its effect on journalists have been overlooked. I conducted a straw poll of national health correspondents and found that most knew about it, and thought it was sensible, but they were still confused. "It's arcane and esoteric," said one, while others weren't really sure, and one hadn't heard of it at all. There is even less knowledge of the PMCPA.

The reason for this range of understanding is that all correspondents are different. The ones who have done it for years are more knowledgeable, and can put the releases into context. Although health correspondent positions are plum jobs, people do move on, and often general reporters fill posts. Certain newspapers regularly swap about their correspondents to 'keep them fresh' and stop them going native. These are the ones that will be Code virgins.

What about stories which break overnight, when general news reporters are charged with covering health issues? And what about female correspondents who go on maternity leave? I was away from my job as health editor at The Sun in 2004-5 and in 2006, when many of the changes were being discussed. On my return, I kept hearing, 'Oh it's the Code' from PRs. Gradually, I pieced it together.

Exception
Surely, I was an exception? Alas, no. Earlier this year, I was talking to Jo Willey, an experienced journalist who was covering maternity leave for a health specialist colleague, having been brought over from general news. She had little idea about the Code and its ramifications. Now informed, she argues that, while noble in its intentions, it risks closing the industry off to the public, upon whom it relies for its products to be tested, accepted, wanted and used.

You might think that scientifically trained medical journalists, who are used to interpreting high-level data, would not be so worried about the changes, but freelance medical writer and editor Sue Mayor, says: "Even as a medical journalist, you want a clear story. When I am writing for the BMJ or The Lancet, I'd state my first sentence in clear English, in words that people can understand – it's not in P values.

"I need the technical information later on, but I can get that from the abstract or the research paper. I don't need that from the press release."

Sue makes the point that individual companies interpret the Code very differently – and this gets to the nub of the issue. The Code, as it affects journalists, has actually changed remarkably little in the last ten years. The rules say that information given to journalists must be factual and balanced, and that hospitality must not be lavish.

 

ABPI Code 2008

Clause 19: Hospitality
Hospitality must be strictly limited to the main purpose of the event and must be secondary to the purpose of the meeting – ie subsistence only. The level of subsistence offered must be appropriate and not out of proportion to the occasion.

Clause 22: Relations with the public and the media
22.2 – Information about prescription-only medicines which is made available to the public either directly or indirectly must be factual and presented in a balanced way. It must not raise unfounded hopes of successful treatment or be misleading with respect to the safety of the product.

 

Grey areas
Even the PMCPA admits that the Code has huge grey areas. "It's not a black and white list of what you can and cannot do," says the association's head of communications, Vicky Edgecome. "A lot of it is quite grey; it's around balance, taking perspective on something. It's not just the Code; it's the spirit of the Code."

That particularly applies to relations with journalists, who are only mentioned twice in the 60-page document. She adds: "The Code is not written from the perspective of journalists…in the same way it's not written for doctors or patient groups. It's from the perspective of laying out the key issues."

This means that the more conservative companies can hide behind the Code. Many have standard operating procedures which go further. The Healthcare Communications Association (HCA) recently published its own good practice guide on talking to the media, because of these grey areas. Chief executive Julia Cook, who agrees there has been an increase in caution, says: "The Code tells you what you can't do. That's not very helpful in some situations." Their guide takes in Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) guidance, and the Medicines Act, aiming for consistency of communications.

So who should be responsible for clearing up the confusion and getting the message across to journalists? The ABPI says its members have that duty. Spokesman, Crispin Slee, says: "There is a responsibility for individual pharma to say we have this self-regulatory Code and all communications are framed within it. It may be dull to have to keep repeating, but it's a fact of life."

Vicky Edgecome says she is reluctant to offer formal, free training for journalists, as there is always the risk that they will not turn up if a big story breaks. I have sympathy with her on that viewpoint.

A more effective method is to go out to journalists and train them on the job, she says. More of that will happen next year, when there is yet another revision to the Code. In the meantime, she is concentrating on explaining the Code to healthcare professionals.

Journalist focus
For some, the outlook is not all bleak. Julia Cook argues that while the relationship between the industry and journalists has 'tightened up,' in some companies, sound bites are being produced much more rapidly, with journalists in mind.

Others in the PR industry think Vicky Edgecombe should start communicating the message to journalists sooner rather than later. One said: "I do think that something is going to come to a head because it's getting tighter and tighter and it's going to either implode or explode in the next couple of years. Something is going to have to change, but I don't know what that will be."

But what's this just arrived in my inbox? I have to eat my words – it's an invitation from the ABPI to a media Christmas party, but for the first time the comms teams of member companies will be attending too. So the party season may not be a washout and I'll press these important questions. Merry Christmas!

The Author
Jacqui Thornton is a freelance writer, media trainer and speaker.

To comment on this article, email pm@pmlive.com

4th January 2010

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