“Do you allow electronic media to wander at will? That is a very bad idea. We make all press wear name badges with big fat ribbons that say PRESS.”
That was the advice offered by Hope Levy Kott, Project Director, IQ Solutions, Rockville, Md., during a discussion on the meeting industry listserv (www.mim.com) concerning negative media coverage of . With the widely publicized issuance of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America's new ethical code for relationships with health care professionals, it's a no-brainer that the press will continue its investigative coverage, and it behooves planners to be proactive. We followed up with Kott to gain more of her insights, as she has much experience in dealing with high-profile meetings. In the few months before we interviewed her, her company had organized meetings on hot topics such as bioterrorism, immunization, West Nile Virus, and the impact of environmental toxins on childhood development.
Q: Why did you write that is it a bad idea to let journalists wander at will? How do you balance freedom of the press with protecting your organization's meeting?
A: As most of my meetings are for the government, the press is allowed into all sessions that are not closed because of privacy issues, trade secrets, etc. However, I prefer that electronic media be placed in one spot, rather than wandering. The meeting is for the meeting participants, not exclusively for the convenience of the press.
Some camera crews are very aggressive about getting a particular shot and don't care if they are blocking the view of the audience. Lighting shining in a speaker's eyes can be very intrusive and can make even the most honest of souls look shifty. Camera lighting can also wash out the screen in an audiovisual presentation, blinding a speaker and ruining a presentation. I once had a cameraman walk behind a speaker who was delivering the results of a conference on a timed satellite broadcast. We were paying for good air time for the speaker, not so the cameraman's Mom could see how good he looked on television!
Q: What if a press person disobeys your instructions?
A: Usually if one is even-handed in enforcing regulations, and helps them get what they need — access — you can deal with them. This is the job of trained professionals — I have learned so much from our media relations staff. We work in close cooperation. I once had a camera crew show up at a meeting on chronic fatigue syndrome. They wanted access not only to the meeting, but also to the comfort room we had set up to provide a place to rest for participants with the syndrome. When we found the crew there against our wishes, we had them removed. When we spoke to our client and to audience members, we were surprised to learn that they had no problems with giving the press access everywhere. The audience members — many of whom were patients or family members — were anxious to get their story told.
Q: How should organizations respond after the fact to a negative article — such as the Washington Post article about the American Psychiatric Association meeting in May?
A: Honestly. The press had some valid points to make. Would the meeting have been the same without all the [corporate] sponsorships? Probably not. Is it possible to have a high quality education meeting without all the frills? Sure, I do it all the time.
Q: What strikes me about some of the negative coverage is that the journalists do not seem well-versed in the guidelines regulating medical meetings. How can meeting organizers better educate the media?
A: We need to do more as an industry to get out the message that our meetings have a real educational purpose and are not just about lavish parties and giveaways. I think many in our industry also do a disservice to our clients with the lavish parties and giveaways that were the target of the APA story.
I also think we can do more to educate [the media] about our process in press packets; for instance, how we ask speakers about their financial ties to drug companies and acknowledge when there are conflicts of interest. I'd love to see a session on dealing with the press at our industry meetings. The Office of Medical Applications of Research has an entire program dedicated to helping the media understand and accurately report on medical developments. It is a model that we as an industry should emulate.