The race to map the human genome is over! In just two short years since Celera Genomics’ inception, its progress has been remarkable toward becoming the definitive reference source of genomic and related biological information -- especially when compared to stiff competition within the exploding genomics industry and the 11-year effort by the publicly funded Human Genome Project led by the National Institutes for Health (NIH).
At times, much of the unsolicited media coverage surrounding the competition characterized the public and private efforts as a “race” often demonizing the issues inherent in the complex subject matter and its history-making implications for the future of drug discovery and medicine, including: ethics, access to data, privacy and gene patenting.
As the “new kid on the block” that was fast outstripping the pace of the public effort, Celera was subject to defending itself against salvos of competitors involving issues (noted above) that were played out in the media. While this may have been a result of reactions to its early success, no matter what the source of the distractions – the net result could have been dilution of the confidence among potential customers that would consider contracting for genomic information with a competing company.
These issues, and the challenge for Celera to support a business model that is based upon what would happen after the “race,” resulted in the decision to communicate the importance of the progress versus an end to the race --- the sequencing and delivery of 1.2 billion base pairs of human DNA; sequencing 90 percent of the human genome, and mapping the “fruit fly” genome; -- to differentiate accomplishments and unique method of decoding the genome. With stiff competition for subscribers as well as the constant public “hits” Celera took from its detractors that risked marginalizing Celera’s accomplishments, scientific methods and the quality of the data, Celera was focused on the race to support a strong business model. Although the decision was made to focus on the application of its findings to changes in medicine and new disease treatments -- holds far more meaning than beating the public effort to the finish line, Celera couldn’t be perceived as losing the race.
RESEARCH AND PLANNING
Ongoing tracking and analysis of trade, national and consumer media coverage in the U.S. and Western Europe helped us to spot patterns in how genomics, related issues, and all companies (including Celera) were viewed. The communications team also closely watched the “thought leader” reporters who were early adopters of covering the genomics revolution. These included Nick Wade of the New York Times, and Justin Gillis of the Washington Post. Often, inquiries from these journalists tipped us off to the next issue that we would need to counter either pro-actively or reactively. A handful of journalists were following Celera and its celebrity scientist leader, J. Craig Venter, in order to write books or produce documentaries about the history-making events underway in the company. Possibly unbeknownst to them, these journalists also served as an early-warning system for the communications team.
- Communicate Celera’s business model and strategies to support advances in drug discovery
- Build confidence in the value of Celera Genomics’ data
- Increase customer subscriptions to the Celera database
- Educate target audiences on the significance of decoding the human genome on the future of medicine; one-to-one with thought leader journalists
- Use each scientific milestone as a building block to educate audiences about the differences inherent in Celera’s data and shotgun sequencing method
- Communicate the business implications of the announcements, and impact on the future of drug and diagnostic discovery
- Focus on the decoding of the human genome as a beginning for Celera and the role that the company will play in the genomics industry
ONE-ON-ONE STRATEGIC APPROACH
The communications team recognized a need to educate journalists, often one at a time, on the business implications of developing genome databases, the method and quality of Celera’s data products, the opportunity for comparative genomics databases – not available from competitors, and the impact the information could have on future medical discovery. Dr. Venter assumed the role of chief communicator and during the course of a one-year run up to the announcements of June 26 – we rarely saw him turn down an interview request, whether the journalist was with a small local paper or the Wall Street Journal. The power of granting an audience with this innovative scientist was an important tool for the communications team. He was frequently deployed personally when a sensitive point needed to be made, or when the communications team was trying to get a reporter to hear our side of an issue while they were moments away from filing a story.
FH worked with Celera to develop and control dissemination of key messages, focus on the impact of the business implications of the announcements and to engage journalists to help them understand, and report upon, the significance of decoding the human genome. The first step included developing key messages, materials to support the objectives as well as leveraging Celera’s chief officer, Dr. Craig Venter, who took personal responsibility for educating legions of journalists and other information gatekeepers. While Dr. Venter’s popularity and “super science hero” personality made him a frequent target of sniping in scientific circles, these factors, and a degree of unprecedented access served to cut a wide channel to ensure that Celera’s complex story was understood, covered, and gained momentum.
Celera and the leaders of the public effort brokered a truce in the race and agreed to cross the finish line together, a development that was announced on June 26, 2000, and became the subject of major media coverage, and speculation. Regarding its own business interest in keeping Celera Genomics at the forefront in communicating this important accomplishment, the communications team focused on a multi-pronged approach that would support its scientific leadership position, as well as gain confidence from investors and business-to-business customers in the viability and future applicability of its business model. The approach included three events that took place within the course of one 24-hour period:
Joint announcement at the White House with the leaders of the NIH effort, President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair via satellite (televised live by CNN)
Joint briefing in Washington DC presented by leaders and scientists from Celera and the NIH project focused on the scientific details (driven by Celera)
Senior executives from Celera Genomics and parent company PE Corporation met with business/financial media in a briefing that was held in conjunction with an investor’s conference in Chicago. Owned by Celera, the event was designed to focus on the business and financial implications related to the scientific achievement.
FH worked with Celera for each event and developed materials, presentations and graphics to maximize Celera’s visibility, control key messages as well as optimize a media outreach campaign that included a broadcast b-roll blitz and aggressive print and broadcast media relations.
The much-anticipated announcements including “Celera Genomics Completes The First Assembly Of The Human Genome” captured immediate and widespread interest from high profile media outlets in the US and around the world, sparking extensive stories in many major newspapers, electronic media and national broadcast outlets. Highlights included BusinessWeek and Time cover stories, a New York Times front page, full banner headline and numerous stories in the Science Times section as well as front-page coverage in Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Post and more than 800 local papers across the country and hundreds more around the world. Media response to the announcement was so widespread that diligent tracking and quantifying of all of the coverage was not a priority for our client. Significant broadcast coverage included live global coverage of the announcement at the White House, a CNN hour-long special edition of “NewsStand,” ABC’s “Nightline” as well as appearances on Good Morning America, The Today Show and the CBS Early Show as well as broadcast b-roll pick-up in most major markets across the country.
The extensive coverage provided unprecedented exposure to existing and potential customers, academic institutions, researchers and investors. Negotiating a joint announcement with the publicly funded project nullified many of the issues that detractors had raised about Celera and the quality of its data. The announcement coverage had a significant impact on Celera’s business and helped the company attract new customers in the pharmaceutical, biotech, and academic market segments including American Home Products, Harvard University, California Institute of Technology, Michigan University, government of Australia, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, The Institute for Genomic Research and more. In the company’s Q1 FY 2001 (July-September) revenues rose to $18.3 million compared with $8.3 million in the same period the previous year –the increase resulted principally from recent subscription agreements.