Paul Holmes 14 Feb 2003 // 12:00AM GMT
Highly anticipated results were about to be unveiled from the REMATCH clinical trial possibly demonstrating for the first time in the U.S. there is an effective treatment alternative for those ineligible for heart transplants. Thoratec Corporation, makers of the HeartMate® heart-assist device used in the trial, stood to benefit greatly from a significant increase in market size and the recognition that could be generated as a direct result of the data.
Faced with a release date out of our control, a gag order on mentioning the name of the prestigious peer-reviewed journal in which the results would be published, an uneducated media, a startling corporate tragedy and a sudden shift in media focus due to the war, FischerHealth knew this campaign would be intense—handled properly it would be the business opportunity of a lifetime for Thoratec, but mishandled it could have permanent and negative repercussions. On all accounts, Fischer and Thoratec triumphed.
Opportunities and Challenges
The REMATCH trial was a unique partnership between the National Institutes of Health, Thoratec and Columbia University. Because of the union of public, private and educational entities, Fischer had to balance the interests and politics of each partner throughout the campaign to ensure joint consensus and benefits. This required a delicate balance between tactfulness and assertiveness, as well as constant communication.
The results were to be published some time in the fall in the New England Journal of Medicine but the peer-reviewed journal prohibited mention of the data and its name in any promotional efforts until the release date. In addition, Fischer had to respect the very strict guidelines of the American Heart Association (AHA) in all product promotional efforts or risk the trial results being pulled from the AHA’s esteemed press conference on the opening day of its Annual Scientific Meeting. The Journal-AHA “double billing” presented another politically intense relationship to manage.
On top of this, the public and the media, were clouded by the recent and substantial media coverage of the AbioCor artificial heart’s first implant. The AbioCor is years behind the HeartMate in development, yet since many were not educated on congestive heart failure advancements, many heralded the AbioCor implant as the most significant medical announcement of the year.
Fischer had anticipated these challenges, but it did not anticipate a sudden corporate tragedy. On September 11, 2001, Thoratec’s COO, Thomas Burnett, who had a key role in the REMATCH trial and in PR activities died on the doomed United Flight 93 that crashed outside of Pittsburgh. While Tom was being heralded as one of the heroes that overcame the hijackers, his PR team at FischerHealth was reeling from the personal loss. Not only did we have to re-plan the entire REMATCH PR campaign, but also protect against a potential business crisis for the company who just lost its COO.
Research and Planning
Before designing the original plan, Fischer carefully surveyed the marketplace to ascertain Thoratec’s perceived position and the messaging being employed by other heart-assist device makers. The $2.5 billion alternative-to-transplant market potential for the HeartMate would mean that 100,000 new patients each year would have a chance for survival when none previously existed. Acknowledging the success and direct competition of the AbioCor campaign, Fischer also did a thorough analysis of AbioCor’s media coverage including outlining their strategy, pinpointing all media outlets and identifying those who had advance notice, determining the knowledge levels of the reporters, examining the materials released, identifying spokespersons they utilized and what those individuals said.
HeartMate Strategy Objectives
Convince the media that the HeartMate heart pump was an even bigger media story than the AbioCor artificial heart.
Educate the media on the differentiating factors between the devices, the HeartMate’s benefits and its overall superiority.
Gain nationwide media attention equal to the extensive coverage that the AbioCor artificial heart had been receiving.
Establish Thoratec as the marketplace leader and lay the foundation for other corporate initiatives.
Change the way the cardiology industry thinks about CHF treatment and influence referral patterns, which would boost the demand for the HeaartMate.
Strategic Approach and Execution
Education: The HeartMate product strategy was comprised of three distinct phases: education, launch and momentum. During the first phase, we prepared a press kit and brief road show presentation and conducted a media tour with the CEO, COO (prior to his death) and CFO of Thoratec. The media tour provided background information and in-person meetings to educate the media in preparation for the eventual announcement. Also during this phase, Fischer discovered that 60 Minutes was working on a story about heart-assist devices. Fischer convinced them to add Thoratec to its story and hold its story until the REMATCH data was released. Fischer set up on-camera interviews with patients and doctors in advance so that when the data was released, 60 Minutes could immediately drop it in and air the story.
Also during this time, Fischer continuously networked with the New England Journal of Medicine and the AHA, encouraging them to announce the results on the same day. Both parties agreed, representing the first time the AHA (and its publication circulation) agreed to share the spotlight. Fischer designed the HeartMate® product strategy to leverage this. The strategy included working closely with the co-sponsors and clinical sites across the country to synchronize efforts. Fischer created template press kits for the clinical sites for use locally. In addition, Fischer compiled a video news release (VNR) to be uplinked on the day of the announcement. The VNR included patient and doctor footage and emphasized the medical significance of the results. Equipped with the turnkey kits and the VNR, the clinical sites served as the arms and legs of the REMATCH campaign on a local level while Fischer concentrated on the national and regional levels.
Launch: On the morning of the launch, the AHA press conference announcing the results was held and the two press releases announcing the REMATCH results (one with a business-angle and one with a consumer-angle) that Fischer and Columbia University prepared were released. Having originally planned our news announcement near September 11, we didn’t think lightening could strike twice – but it did.
The morning of our announcement, a plane crashed in Queens, NY, immediately diverting media attention. Based on this, we uplinked the VNR that day, as well as three more times over the next two weeks. We also hosted a satellite media tour to encourage VNR usage combined with live interviews of Thoratec’s CEO and REMATCH’s lead investigator. Two audioconferences were also conducted, one for media and one for analysts, to provide them with the information they needed. Before and after the audioconferences, the lead investigator of the trial and the CEO of Thoratec were interviewed in-person by media at the show and via telephone for those who did not attend.
To provide additional credibility and sources for the media, Fischer had previously identified and prepared third-party luminaries who have used the HeeartMate® with patients and would be in attendance at AHA. This proved to be invaluable on several occasions including media opportunities with USA Today and the Wall Street Journal and helped to ensure that reporters met deadlines and had different perspectives on the news.
Momentum: After the initial launch activities were complete, Fischer continued the momentum by pitching unique story angles that included business, holiday and patient stories. This momentum is still driving coverage of the REMATCH trial and the HeartMate® to this day.
The media coverage—in spite of the war, the death of Thoratec’s COO and the plane crash the day of our announcement—was astounding, resulting in over 155 million media impressions. The hits included coverage in TIME, Newsweek, Wall Street Journal, three LA Times stories, USA Today and two New York Times stories and on 60 Minutes, CNN, NBC Nightly News, AP and Reuters. In fact, the stories on the front page of the LA Times for that day were about war, the plane crash, REMATCH and the HeartMate.
Since the release, Thoratec has received numerous calls from patients and doctors wanting to know how they can be involved with the HeartMate. In excess of 50 industry analysts requested additional information either through the audioconference or directly to Fischer and Thoratec. Roseanne Ott, an analyst at Lehman Brothers, summed it up best when she said, “This was a landmark trial with an impressive investigator. The bottom line is we are very pleased.”