Since many scientists believed that Gleevec (imatinib mesylate) represented a giant leap in terms of how doctors and patients approached the war against cancer, Ruder Finn and Novartis Oncology were challenged with a host of communications issues. The goal was to create worldwide awareness of Gleevec’s approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of patients with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) in blast crisis, accelerated phase, or in chronic phase after failure of interferon-alpha therapy.
Similarly, Gleevec was one of the first oncology drugs to be developed with rational drug design based on an understanding of how certain cancer cells work, and was the first oral cancer therapy for CML patients. As such, an important objective behind the Gleevec launch was to demonstrate, from a scientific perspective, the role of Gleevec in the changing paradigm of cancer treatment.
The first promising clinical data about Gleevec were announced at the December 1999 meeting of the American Society of Hematology, and generated a high level of media attention and patient demand.
Consequently, Ruder Finn and Novartis needed to carefully monitor media and patient interest (largely via the Internet and direct requests to Novartis) in the months prior to FDA approval.
Ruder Finn recognized that unless messages were managed from this early stage, news about Gleevec’s potential could be misinterpreted. The media attention and clinical success of Gleevec might have led the medical community, patients and the general public to believe that Novartis had developed a cure for leukemia.
Ruder Finn and Novartis needed to address questions surrounding the price and accessibility of Gleevec, because Medicare does not reimburse oral cancer therapies.
- Utilize multiple media channels for communicating Gleevec messages
- Communicate the innovative science and promising clinical data
- Educate and inform external advocates and media to drive accurate news coverage
- Generate extensive, accurate and global media coverage
- Position Novartis as a leader in the development of cancer treatments, dedicated to the needs of the patient
- Manage expectations of Gleevec in the cancer community and among the general public
Maintaining Consistent Messaging in a Media Frenzy: Before and during the Gleevec launch, Ruder Finn and Novartis worked closely with third parties (e.g., investigators, patient support groups, cancer centers) to ensure that they had the most recent and accurate information to communicate to their audiences.
Managing Expectations for a “Miracle Drug”: Through careful messaging and media-skills workshops, Ruder Finn and Novartis kept the focus of Gleevec on the promising data, careful not to over-promote the drug as a leukemia cure.
Communicating the Science Behind Gleevec: To understand the importance of Gleevec to cancer research, the media first had to understand the complex science behind its development. In November 2000, Ruder Finn coordinated a press briefing to educate select reporters on the mechanism of action of Gleevec and how it inhibits the specific abnormality of CML. Subsequently, Ruder Finn provided the media with an illustrated explanation of the drug’s mechanism of action to visually tell the story.
Reimbursement Issues: Novartis recognized the need to assist patients in gaining access to Gleevec early in its development, establishing a carefully structured patient-assistance program. Ruder Finn and Novartis worked closely with patient groups to ensure that they understood the details of the program.
Aggressive Media Outreach: Ruder Finn prepared a multi-scenario media strategy that could be adjusted to several possible outcomes, since the FDA approval date could not be predicted and the annual meeting of the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) was approaching. After the scenarios were developed, Ruder Finn and Novartis had to devise a new strategy at the last minute when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services scheduled a press conference to publicly announce the approval. Ruder Finn coordinated media outreach using its network of offices across the world.
Satellite Media Tour with Lead Investigator and Trial Patient: Ruder Finn organized a satellite media tour featuring Dr. Brian Druker, the lead investigator in the Gleevec CML trials, and Suzan McNamara, a Gleevec patient. The agency also coordinated media-skills workshops with both to ensure consistent delivery of key Gleevec and Novartis messages.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Press Conference: In an unprecedented move, the HHS held a press conference on May 10 announcing Gleevec’s FDA approval. The press conference featured Novartis CEO Dr. Daniel Vasella, who conveyed the potential impact of Gleevec within the oncology community and the importance of the patient-assistance program. The conference was attended by HHS Secretary Dr. Tommy Thompson, a Gleevec patient and representatives from the FDA and the National Cancer Institute.
Coverage of the approval stressed Novartis’ key messages and accurately conveyed information about Gleevec. Dr. Vasella was quoted by top-tier media outlets addressing the patient-assistance program, while Dr. Druker quoted about the science behind Gleevec. The majority of the coverage acknowledged Gleevec as a major advancement, but not as “the cure” for cancer.
The satellite media tour generated a viewership of 6.8 million people across 15 states, including a segment on “CBS This Morning.”
The Gleevec approval was featured in such media outlets as:
- Print: Time (cover story), The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Times of India, The Financial Times, The International Herald Tribune, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, SCRIP, The Pink Sheet, Health News Daily
- Broadcast: “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” “CBS Early Show,” “NBC Nightly News,” “ABC World News Tonight,” “CNN Live Today,” “CNN Tonight”
- Wires and Internet: Reuters, Bloomberg, Associated Press, WebMD, Forbes.com, CNN.com, MSNBC.com, CBS Healthwatch.
Total circulation and viewership for the FDA approval of Gleevec: 300,944,576 (Figures represent actual audience reach, as reported by independent monitoring services)