Understanding Addiction: Pioneering Research In An Age-Old Human Problem
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Holmes Report

Understanding Addiction: Pioneering Research In An Age-Old Human Problem

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory is associated in the minds of the public – and the media as well – with astounding, “star wars” research on nuclear physics.

Paul Holmes

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory is associated in the minds of the public – and the media as well – with astounding, “star wars” research on nuclear physics.  But the Lab is also home to one of the world’s most important research teams studying the nature of addiction – whether alcohol, food, narcotics, or gambling.  Brookhaven scientists have some of the most in-depth knowledge about the chemistry, biology, pathology, psychology and treatment of addiction of any research team.

Brookhaven asked M Booth to design a communications program to get the word out about its important new work in this area to establish its pre-eminence with top-tier medical journals and journalists, to inform the interested public on groundbreaking new findings, and to leverage its addiction expertise into a fuller communications program about Brookhaven’s standing in the biomedical research world as well as in physics.   This program called into play Booth’s extensive experience in designing medical communications programs, its deep contacts in the medical and scientific media, and its ability to promote basic research in published studies.  In this case, Brookhaven had four studies – one on obesity, two on methamphetamine abuse, and a fourth on a potential addiction treatment – on which to base a media program


Booth’s PR challenges were to:  1) Translate “deep” science research into consumer friendly stories; 2) “Brand” Brookhaven as an international leader in biomedical research, especially related to brain chemistry and addiction; and 3) Get local press to focus on the Lab’s accomplishments (and not its past mistakes).


Booth staff devoted more than 40 hours with the Lab’s researchers to gain an understanding of their research, and to determine how to position these diverse studies to attract maximum media attention.  Because media predictably want to interview lead investigators, we conducted media and message training with them.  Finally, we created fact sheets and backgrounders on each addiction disorder to enable journalists to correctly understand and portray the significance of study results.

As a result of this research, we created a program based on these study findings: 1) Changes in brain chemistry, notably dopamine, may be directly linked to overeating in obese individuals; and 2) A similar change in brain chemistry was seem in methamphetamine abusers appearing in the March 2001 American Journal of Psychiatry,

Against these studies, we created a program that positioned the following objectives:  1) To “brand” Brookhaven as an international leader in biomedical research; 2) To generate new messages to the public about the nature (and possible management) of addiction in two key areas of public health concern, and 3) To get the local community to focus on areas of the Lab’s science that may have important implications toward solving major societal problems. 


Our research told us these studies – despite their high-level of science sophistication – would have strong consumer interest (particularly the obesity study) and developed a media list that targeted lifestyle and health reporters at major consumer media, as well as key science and medical publications. A special emphasis was placed on reaching out to top-tier media, so The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, U.S. News and others were contacted very early on the potential significance of each study.  Because of the growing influence of on-line media – many health news sites reach well over a million people and provide content to hundreds of additional websites and portals—we also developed a targeted list of top medical e-news organizations.  Releases were embargoed and timed to maximize potential coverage by giving journalists a few days to develop stories and conduct interviews. 

We further determined that an endorsement from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) would lend credibility to the studies.  After reaching out to NIDA’s communications office to discuss the significance of the research and determine their level of interest, we arranged interviews with NIDA’s Dr. Alan Leshner (on the methamphetamine studies, which NIDA funded). 


This program was carried out in three waves, over a two-month period of one-on-one coordination with the medical journals, media contact and interviews.  Medical journalists at strategically important Washington, New York City, and Long Island media were contacted first, followed by a broader release.  Booth also placed the news release on the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s EurekAlert embargoed science-news site. 


Booth’s results were outstanding: 
News coverage:  100+ million media impressions, most in top-tier media.
· Coverage highlights:
· Numerous segments on CNN and Headline News
· The New York Times and Washington Post
· Time, U.S. News & World Report
· Chicago Sun-Times, Houston Chronicle, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
· JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association)
· Newsday (2 stories) and News 12 Long Island
· Top on-line medical news outlets, providing content to hundreds of sites

Additionally, the journalist briefing, held shortly after the release of these studies, was attended by 33 journalists ranging from The New York Times and AP to Parade and Cosmopolitan.

Brookhaven positioning and message penetration was a success:
Most stories had strong Brookhaven identification and positioned the Lab as a leader in biomedical research – a particularly important objective as the Lab diversifies its funding sources to include more National Institutes of Health agencies. 
Private industry also paid attention:  the Newark Star-Ledger cover story, which came about as a result of the Ledger’s science writer’s exposure to the Lab’s addiction treatment research with the EJP study, triggered numerous calls from New Jersey-based pharmaceutical companies interested in the Lab’s work with an experimental drug.

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