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Pfizer Exec’s Tips for ‘Managing’ Journalists

Influence comes in many forms. Often, influencing the influencers is a smart strategy. Free food never hurts, either.

The head of public relations for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer makes free food a centerpiece of his “tips for managing journalists” an industry conference, Advertising Age reports.

In this video clip, Pfizer’s global public relations chief Ray Kerins explains his strategy for working with journalists, whose coverage, in the words of Advertising Age,”so heavily impacts the pharmaceutical giant’s reputation.” Kerins says:

“…[T]omorrow, we’re hosting a lunch with the communications team for Linda Johnson, who’s one of the top health care folks at the Associated Press. She’s outstanding, she’s brilliant we love her to death. But we’re bringing her into our home and we’re saying, look, here’s who we are and here’s what we’re talking about. She’s not meeting with executives, she’s meeting with communications, with my folks on the media team. We do this about every other week.”

Johnson won’t be the first journalist to be feted at Pfizer. Kerins estimates that his team met with about 115 journalists in 2008, on and off-site.

No doubt it’s a good investment for Pfizer. Critical media coverage can cost a drug company billions in lost sales, diminished good will, and even legal and political scrutiny. Stories with headlines like “Maker of Vioxx Accused of Deception” hurt Merck’s bottom line.

Kerins claims that that his team has “no agenda” when journalists are made honored guests at corporate headquarters. But, as someone who has worked in the pharmaceutical industry, writing ad copy for various well-known brands including some of Pfizer’s products, I can categorically say “Yeah, right.” He may not be pitching specific stories, but he’s almost certainly mounting a charm offensive.

The pharmaceutical industry is perhaps second only to Hollywood in the economic emphasis placed on lunch. A couple advertising agencies where I worked did a brisk business designing customized boxes for bagels served at so-called “Lunch and Learns”–promotional events where company representatives, or scientists hand-picked by the company, tried to woo doctors into prescribing the latest ACE inhibitor or antidepressant. We’d get memos from the marketing teams explaining how our colorful bagel boxes, emblazoned with company logos and drug tag lines, reinforced the key sales messages of the lecture.

When big pharma reaches out to influencers, such as doctors and journalists, its always couched in terms of education — but Merck is not an educational institution. It sells drugs.

Ironically, a lot of the worst press big pharma has gotten in recent years centered on the companies’ shameless attempts to ingratiate themselves with physicians through free food, conveniently-packaged information, and flattery. Apparently, Pfizer has decided that the cure for bad press is to offer journalists similar perks.

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