Healthcare Companies Find Closer Relationships with Media
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Healthcare Companies Find Closer Relationships with Media

"It’s obvious this incident has had a dramatic impact on reporters. The relationship between PR people and reporters can be push-and-pull on a day-to-day basis, but in a case like this, reporters and PR people are people first."

Paul Holmes

In the days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Indianapolis-based Guidant Corporation was determined to heed President George Bush and get back to business as quickly as possible. Guidant, in fact, was doubly determined, because it is in the medical device business, a leader in the manufacture and marketing of cardiovascular medical products. Any interruption in business has a cost not only in dollars, but also in lives.
 
But for Guidant, getting back to business was not without obstacles. For one thing, the company is geographically dispersed, with significant operations in California and Minnesota and operations in Europe and Japan. Says director of corporate communications Steven Tragash, “Prior to the attacks, management was on planes all the time.” For another thing, the company relies on the nation’s air transportation system to get its product to hospitals.
 
So Guidant adjusted. Says Tragash, “Since the attacks, we have been using the Internet, we have been holding teleconferences and video conferences. But our products still need to move around the world, and we have been working with airlines to make sure they are given priority shipping. Thankfully, there have been no major interruptions in deliveries.”
 
The company also needed to communicate to key stakeholders both internally and externally that its products were still going out. Within days of the attack, the company put out a release expressing support for the president, announcing support services for its employees, and explaining that the company was operating as normal.
 
“At this time, our deliveries are moving in the U.S. and internationally as our carriers have placed our products on medical device emergency priority,” said president Ronald Dollens. “We continue to manufacture and ship products and anticipate that we will be able to meet all product supply needs going forward. Given the gravity of this time, we believe it is important to focus on what matters most: our patients, who need our products; our customers, who depend on us; and our employees, who want to support our nation.”
 
Tragash says he was surprised at how many calls the release generated: as many as four or five a day, most from reporters the company dealt with on a regular basis. The most surprising thing, however, was the first question almost all of them asked: “Are you okay?”
 
Says Tragash, “I have been a reporter and a corporate PR executive. It’s obvious this incident has had a dramatic impact on reporters. There was a real, legitimate concern. The relationship between PR people and reporters can be push-and-pull on a day-to-day basis, but in a case like this, reporters and PR people are people first.
 
“I don’t think this is a temporary thing. I think this incident has changed a lot of things.”
 
Michael Beckerich, manager of corporate communications for Amgen, had a similar experiencee after his company received approval from the Food & Drug Administration for a new version of its top-selling anemia drug that requires fewer injections. The new drug will make it easier for doctors and patients to treat anemia successfully, and will compete with Johnson & Johnson’s Procrit.
 
“This was our biggest product launch in 10 years,” says Beckerich, who initially was concerned that reporters would not be receptive to a new product story at a time when many were focused exclusively on the aftermath of the attacks. As it turned out, most of the reporters Amgen contacted were grateful to get back to their regular business beat, and eager to reconnect on a personal level too.
 
Amgen was certainly sensitive to the fact that most reporters were preoccupied by the terrorist attacks: company researcher Dora Menchaca was on board American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. The day it received approval, the company had announced it would donate $2 million to the relief efforts and would match contributions by employees to relief organizations.
 
But the FDA was conducting business as usual, and announced its approval of the drug on Monday. Amgen had been planning its communications strategy for some time, but it hadn’t planned to have to get the word out in the midst of the greatest crisis in recent American history—and on a Jewish holiday.
 
“With the new disclosure laws, we didn’t have a lot of leeway in terms of when we had to make an announcement,” says Beckerich. “We had many tactics to get the message out to the media, but we pulled back on some of them. We recognized this was not the primary concern for the rest of the world right now, so we didn’t go ahead with a satellite media tour we had planned. It just didn’t make sense from a business standpoint.”
 
Working with New York public relations firm ChandlerChicco, the biotech company reached out to many reporters on a one-to-one basis.
 
“I know many of the reporters we contacted personally,” says Beckerich. “A lot of them didn’t even have their offices, and I was amazed when a lot of them who knew I was from New York asked me how I was. I was asking them if they were okay and they were turning it back on me.”
 
“We had a senior science writer call up and thank us for giving him the opportunity to get back to work and do what he loves best,” says Gianfranco Chicco of ChandlerChicco.
 
So the company did go ahead with a teleconference, with 15 journalists calling in, including representatives of  The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. The story was covered the next day in both those publications—including the front page of the L.A. Times business section—The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and generated five Dow Jones wire stories.
 
Beckerich gives a lot of credit to ChandlerChicco. “They really know this business and how to approach it,” he says. “They gave us great counsel on the best approach and helped us carry it out.”
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