An MD&DI December 1998 Column
The increasing influence of the media as a source of medical information places a premium on effective public relations.
The first speaker at the "Town Hall Meeting on Media, Medicine, and Regulatory Affairs" opened the session with a startling statistic: more adult Americans (40%) name television as their primary source of medical and healthcare information than name doctors (36%). (Magazines, you'll be pleased to know, rate a close third.) Eighty-two percent believe that medical news reported by the media helps them lead a healthy life. And yet despite the proliferation of reportage, analysis, public-service announcements, infomercials, and every other sort of exhortation and cajolery, fully one-third of respondents claim they do not get enough medical and health news to keep them well-informed.
These and other results of a survey conducted by the National Health Council were presented at the annual conference of the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society in Washington, DC, by Dee Ellison, the Council's director of communications. Ellison called on the mediaclearly now "an integral part of the nation's healthcare team"to provide "accurate, timely, complete, and balanced information." Other panelists were less sanguine. Mary K. Pendergast, executive vice president for government affairs at Elan Corp. and former deputy commissioner of FDA, termed the influence of the media in general (and TV's primacy in particular) "scary," given the "systematic biases in healthcare reporting" that include superficiality and an inclination either to overaccentuate the positivewhether a scientific test result or the com- mercial potential of a productor to escalate any problem into a full-scale disaster.
When the discussion turned to media relations and industry crisis management, Pendergast stressed the importance of early, frequent communication, and underscored the critical role of regulatory personnel in notifying government agencies. A company must learn the particularities of using the media to its advantage: for example, how to get a story out quickly on the AP wire, or how to guard against television's tendency to obscure a message by reporting the news-gathering process rather than the news itself. Bruce Downey, president and CEO of Barr Laboratories, counseled companies to prepare a crisis management plan that can be printed on a single sheet of paper, and urged early notification and media involvement of the chief executive. The overriding rule for crisis management, said Barr, is "the golden rule": protect the public, and you'll protect the company and its shareholders.
Many of these same themesmedia power, objectivity, and balance; media manipulation by advocacy groups; crisis management and how to define the public interestare currently being played out in a "story" with important ramifications for the device industry. The setting is your neighborhood toy store. On November 13, the worldwide chain Toys 'R' Us announced that it was pulling from its shelves all direct-to-mouth toys (teething rings, etc.) containing phthalate-ester plasticizers. The action followed announcements from major toy manufacturers that they were discontinuing use of the plasticizers andby extensionof flexible PVCs. The companies maintain that their products are safe, but say they are responding, in the words of one executive, "to the marketplace rather than to any scientific or regulatory imperative." In this case, the "marketplace" has been shaped by the highly effective media strategies of various environmental groups.
The loss of flexible squeaking ducks is perhaps not a major blow to world civilization, but what about flexible endotracheal tubes? A member of a chemical industry board, who has carried out exhaustive reviews of the literature on the plasticizers and finds them "completely harmless," nevertheless predicts that "the industry will go the way toys go." In the high-stakes arena of public opinion, will a product be safe and effective only when an increasingly powerful media declares it to be so?