PR rep says journalists’ stipend to attend Allergan event was misconstrued

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

An invitation to journalists to participate in an Allergan-hosted “Facial Aesthetics Advisory Panel” that included an offer of a $250 stipend was misconstrued, according to the public relations representative who sent it.

Sarah Smedley, of Chandler Chicco Companies, said the panel was intended to be “in the nature of a focus group.”

The agency, which sent the invitation to 10 freelancers, wanted the journalists to tell them what types of questions their readers have. Smedley characterized the questions they would put to journalists as broad and not product-specific. Allergan manufactures Botox, Juvederm and Latisse.

They chose freelancers because they have a broad view and write for multiple outlets, according to Smedley. “There was no intention to get stories or coverage; we wanted to listen.”

Two journalists have accepted the invitation but one of them has declined the stipend, she said. “We expected a few to come to participate as experts in the media.”

AHCJ member Lisa Collier Cool shared the invitation with AHCJ, saying she considers this “an all-time low in drug company promotion to the media.”

Karl Stark, AHCJ’s vice president, said the organization’s board of directors was alarmed by the offer.

“We report all the time on the potential conflicts of interest that money creates between drug companies and doctors,” said Stark, a Philadelphia Inquirer editor. “How would this be any different?”

AHCJ’s Statement of Principles includes the advice to:

  • Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
  • Refuse gifts, favors, and special treatment. Refuse meals from drug companies and device manufacturers and refuse to accept unsolicited product samples sent in the mail.
  • Weigh the potential benefits involved in accepting fees, honoraria, free travel, paid expenses from organizers of conferences or events against the desire to preserve our credibility with the audience and the need to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“We really regret that Lisa [Collier Cool] misconstrued this,” Smedley said. “The allegation that it was a bribe took my breath away.”

Smedley, who said she has worked in health care public relations for about 15 years, said she was “disappointed that Lisa wouldn’t have called, reached out somehow … for more information.”

She said the invitation has been “misconstrued terribly wrong and out of proportion.”

When asked if she is aware of journalists’ codes of ethics, she replied, “We’re highly aware and we respect journalists and their code of ethics.” She said she also observes the PRSA’s code of ethics.

She does not believe their invitation was unethical and her agency will “conduct focus groups and adhere to codes of ethics, as we’ve always done.” This is the first focus group of this kind for Allergan.

A spokeswoman for Allergan told Forbes’ Matthew Herper that the stipend was “for their participation in a three-hour meeting as a means to compensate them for their time, nothing more.”

2 thoughts on “PR rep says journalists’ stipend to attend Allergan event was misconstrued

  1. Lisa Collier Cool

    Sarah Smedley’s claim that there was no intention to buy media coverage by offering reporters $250 apiece to attend an Allergan-sponsored media events sounds like an effort to spin the story. Let’s look at the facts. Ms. Smedley states that the event was “not product specific” yet the invitation prominently mentions Botox, juvederm and Latisse, all of which are made by Allergan. If promoting these products was not the motivation, why mention them prominently or at all?

    Second,the claim that “there was no intention to get stories or coverage” rings false when the reporters were expected to listen to an Allergan presentation on “innovations and trends” in facial cosmetic treatments,which, of course, is the market category that Botox, juvederm and Latisse fall into. Since I write for a lot of women’s magazines, I get media invitations are the time and this is a familiar format. First the sponsoring company has an expert talk about trends, to give reporters a news hook for coverage, and an expert talks about innovation, which is basically a euphemism for products, such as whatever the company is trying to market to women this month.

    That’s a lot of talking for a company that claims it just wants to listen and write checks, so I’m not buying it. To me, the offer of cash for my “insights” remains a thinly disguised bribe and to assert that I just misunderstood is just an attempt to put lipstick on a pig,so I hope that Allergan abandons this deplorable PR tactic.

    Finally, I also think it would be highly unethical for professional journalists to accept drug company money to participate in any type of event aimed at influencing press coverage, including an “advisory panel.”

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