Frazzled pharma reporters chase scoops

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It was lunchtime on day two of ExL's pharma public relations conference at Pfizer headquarters, and the host, Pfizer PR chief Ray Kerins, took the podium to vent some steam with his fellow flacks. Red-faced, he was livid with an unnamed outlet and promised more details after the break.

“It was basically a declaration of war,” said an attendee.

The villain in this cliffhanger, as it turned out, was Bloomberg, which had posted an otherwise well-reported article about an impending FDA advisory panel decision on Pfizer's Revatio (sildenafil) for pulmonary arterial hypertension in kids.

The big problem was the headline for the article: “Viagra Faces FDA Review for Use in Children.”

The headline was later tweaked to read: “Pfizer's Viagra Weighed by US FDA for Children With Rare Lung Disorder.”

“The thing is, we had just spent a day and a half focusing on scientific and medical communications,” says Kerins, “with leaders in the field saying we need to focus on the data and on the patient. And it's clear that there's a want to do that, but then we come up against challenges like this.”

The reporter, who hadn't written the headline, conceded that the first iteration was misleading but argued that spelling out the chemical connection with Viagra was fair game. Pretty much every other news outlet followed Bloomberg's lead.

Salacious headline-writing is, of course, nothing new, though you might expect it more from The New York Post than from a stodgy business wire like Bloomberg. Still, in a media world increasingly ruled by search-driven clicks rather than ad pages or Nielsen ratings, it's imperative.

What is new is the crushing, nonstop onslaught of the 24/7 online news cycle, the pressure it places on top-tier news outlets to break news first and the speed with which communicators must respond.

In a media panel at the conference, MS&L's Mike Huckman, fresh off an eight-year stint as CNBC's pharma reporter, cited a recent Times piece on Politico to describe the state of America's newsrooms as “frantic and fatigued, with reporters shackled to their computers.”

“It's all about breaking news, preferably news the other guy doesn't have, and it needs to be conveyed in absolute real time with a sense of potentially stock-moving urgency,” said Huckman. “It became increasingly difficult to sell think pieces. They're just not one of the staples of cable.”

Bloomberg's Tom Randall said reporters there were increasingly being asked to participate across multiple platforms. At the height of the swine flu scare, he was filing two stories a day.

“After filing the second one in the evening, I'd run upstairs to do a shoot for (Bloomberg) Asia,” said Randall. “Now I have to worry about how a story will play in BusinessWeek, too.”

The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Rockoff caused a stir with the crowd when he announced, seemingly almost apologetically, that the paper would, with few exceptions, no longer observe embargos. “We don't want to abide by artificial deadlines,” he said. “We want to break news.”

“Traditional news is highly focused on audience reach and potential to leverage stories online,” said Lisa Davidson, managing director of the healthcare practice at Burson-Marsteller. “Media strategy is no longer one-hit but rather about how to generate repeat coverage of appropriate stories.”
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