Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Unhealthy spin

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 29 May 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:1205
  1. Bob Burton, freelance journalist (,
  2. Andy Rowell, freelance journalist2
  1. 1 POBox 157, O'Connor, ACT2602, Australia
  2. 2 Devon TQ10 9JL

    Public relations companies are experts at “third party technique”—helping the drug industry separate the message from what could be seen as a self interested messenger. But most journalists have a sketchy idea about how the public relations industry works, and thereby are vulnerable to uncritically accepting the disguised messages of the drug industry

    Few doctors have heard of the world's leading medical public relations companies—Edelman, Ruder Finn, Noonan/Russo Presence, the Shire Health Group, and Medical Action Communications, among others. Yet barely a day passes without most doctors or their patients being exposed to messages that have been carefully crafted by these public relations companies, aimed at boosting sales of their clients' drugs.

    Embedded Image

    According to the public relations industry's trade press, the top five companies in “healthcare PR” raked in over $300m (£186m, ##260m) last year for everything from planning pre-launch media coverage of new drugs and cultivating doctors to publishing medical journals and wooing patients' groups.

    Business tactics

    At the heart of most public relations strategies is what is referred to as the “third party technique.” Edelman's associate director health in London, Paul Keirnan, explained the technique as separating the message from what could be seen as a self interested messenger. A pharmaceutical company defending a controversial product, he said, “would have much less credibility than if an opinion leader or a prescriber said it. It is not putting words in the mouths of opinion leaders. It is basically using a third party to put forward what are the facts without it being seen to be spun if you like by the pharmaceutical company.”

    Summary points

    In the “third party technique,” instead of using a company representative from the drug company (who would have low credibility) as spokesperson, an apparently independent messenger with a higher credibility rating in the eyes of the target audience …

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