Reviews Press

Publish and be pampered

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 07 August 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:348
  1. Caroline White, freelance medical journalist
  1. London

    How freelance health journalists are under increased pressure from PR firms

    A“message” reported in the news media is eight times more likely to be trusted than an advertisement, according to a survey of 850 US and European opinion leaders, published earlier this year. An article in a news magazine is 10 times more likely to be trusted than a product advertisement, the survey, Building Trust, by public relations giant Edelman, showed (/

    Credibility depends on repeated exposure to the message, the survey indicated. No surprise, then, that the pharmaceutical industry, and nutriceutical and lifestyle product manufacturers court health journalists as eagerly as they do doctors. This courtship is not restricted to journalists writing for specialist medical publications; consumer media are also on the agenda.

    And there's a lot more of it on the way. “Health is a growth area for PR,” says Ann Mealor, assistant director of the UK's Institute of Public Relations, which aims to promote best practice. The institute is shortly planning to set up a specific membership category for health PR firms to cater for this expansion.

    But the pressure to garner that all important editorial coverage has intensified, sharpened by the economic downturn, she says. “They [PR companies] want to be seen to be value for money, and their clients can afford to be choosy, because there are so many companies out there.”

    This might explain why members of the Guild of Health Writers, a professional organisation for UK health journalists and writers of which I am the chair, have recently been subjected to some ostensibly dubious practice. Earlier this year, a PR company, on behalf of its client, invited guild members to attend “an exclusive preview” of next generation laser eye technology, at which there would be opportunities to “discuss free treatment in return for editorial features.”

    A string of complaints from members prompted a strongly worded letter to both the PR agency and the company concerned. The company responded, refuting the suggestion that bribery had been intended, and said that it would ensure that such wording did not find its way into any future material.

    In June, several members were advised of a forthcoming cancer conference, looking at complementary approaches to living with the disease. It turned out that only journalists who could guarantee copy both before and after the conference would be considered for free places. When challenged, the organisers defended their stance on the grounds that they were a small outfit with limited resources.

    “No way should you buy copy. Readers expect journalists to be impartial”

    Both these examples failed the Institute of Public Relations's code of practice, and, in the case of the laser technology, breached ethics. “No way should you buy copy,” comments Anne Mealor. “Readers expect journalists to be impartial, and third party endorsement is very, very powerful.”

    But there are other more subtle ways of encouraging health journalists to produce editorial. There can be few of us who have not happily accepted “goody bags,” meals, or press trips—myself included.

    Freelances, in particular, rely on press trips. And publications rely heavily on freelances. Without having their flights and accommodation paid for, freelances would find it hard to attend major international medical conferences and meetings.

    Similarly, the guild has a “friends” category for PRs and commercial companies such as Boots. Without their generous sponsorship, it would be impossible to run its extensive programme of educational seminars and training workshops.

    But the guild also has its own code of ethics with which members must comply. This includes declaring commercial interests; not actively promoting any product or service unless strictly in the interests of readers; and not allowing press trips or commercial inducements to influence output. The not uncommon practice of “selling in,” whereby journalists accept industry payment to sell stories to specific titles, would also come under this umbrella.

    Jerome Burne, freelance journalist and editor of Medicine Today, agrees that protocols are needed, but thinks that journalists don't blithely scribble paeans or casually litter their copy with product references as a result of a lunch or press trip.

    “In some ways it's easier [for us] to adopt a far more objective approach than other areas [of corporate hospitality]. Any reasonably competent journalist can do a bit of background research and make up their own minds about claims for a drug or product,” he says.

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