Perk Poppers

Ben Goldacre, a London-based doctor and writer, was a little "surprised" by a recent offer posted in an email on a science writers' mailing list. "It was from the Aspirin Foundation, a group funded by the drug industry, and it was offering -- on behalf of Bayer HealthCare -- to pay expenses for journalists to attend the European Society of Cardiology's conference in Vienna." Goldacre contacted some of his peers and discovered that it is "extremely common for journalists to take money from drug companies." Some reporters dismissed the suggestion that such perks could affect how they reported an event. Drug companies, Goldacre noted, "wouldn't pay for journalists to attend their events if they didn't think it would affect media coverage of their product. After all, a journalist's article is far more credible than a paid advertisement, for anybody's money, and more likely to be read by potential consumers."


Goldacre has posted his article at his ''Bad Science'' blog which has a series of comments appended. Comment 5 from SpiderJ - who worked in PR but not pharma PR - is worth a look (typos in original). He/she notes that "... out of all the publications we dealt with, only the New York Times had a very firm policy about not acceptiny any support - i.e. flights out to a press event, accomodation, etc. But, for many other press, we would pay for them to attend big events - including our most vociferous critics - and they very rarely cut us any slack. In a highly competitive industry, you can’t afford to ignore a high profile journalist or publiciation - if you do, usually they just end up writing something ill-informed as well as negative."

This is one of those curious defences of PR's offering perks for journalists. This is:

a) paying for flights and accomodation "rarely" makes any difference to the content; (which if true, begs the question of why companies and their shareholders aren't asking questions about this expenditure; it also raises questions about the PR's measuring and evaluating the impact of what they do. It also begs the question of whether PR practitioners knowingly waste clients money on activities they consider won't yield any appreciable 'return on investment'); and

b) that is if don't subsidise "a high profile journalist or publiciation" they "usually" end up writing "something ill-informed as well as negative." Clearly, in the view of SpiderJ, journalists who go on the free trips are not so "ill-informed" which means the PR budget had some impact. And if journalists who weren't subsidised wrote articles that were "ill-informed" and "negative", then surely that would give the PR company and/or client the motive and opportunity to write letters to the editor etc so that the world could judge if their work was indeed "ill-informed". (It is worth noting that what PR's and their clients often consider to be "ill-informed" is simply good journalism that digs out information companies would prefer wasn't made public).