When more than 18,000 cancer specialists from around the world gathered in Los Angeles for the 34th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), held May 16 to 19, the media was there to greet them with microphones bristling, cameras rolling, and laptops at hand. And for good reason, according to ASCO president Robert J. Mayer, MD. The results of more than 2,000 new studies presented at the meeting, including information about the relative benefits of tamoxifen and raloxifene in preventing breast cancer, and new biologic therapies, "may herald an entirely new era of cancer treatment," says Mayer.
However, media attention can go awry if it is not handled very carefully. For example, several weeks prior to ASCO's meeting, a decision by The New York Times to feature an article on cancer research as front page news led some patients to believe that a promising new treatment was currently available from their doctors, when in fact it was not even in the human research studies phase yet. The coverage resulted in public and media debate on how to report appropriately cancer research.
Given this news environment, the association went to great lengths to ensure that the meeting's revelations would be treated properly by the press. "We wanted to be very careful to make clear what is new in terms of research, what actually is available, and when treatments could become available," says Kristin Ludwig, ASCO director of communications.
For regular news coverage of the research to be presented at the meeting, ASCO sent out--well in advance of the conference--press releases accompanied by attached abstracts of the presentations they covered, with on- and off-site media contact information included.
To accommodate the 300 media representatives who were registered at the meeting, ASCO set up a separate press conference room in the Los Angeles Convention Center, where the meeting was held. It also arranged to have a full-service newsroom where reporters could plug in their laptops, use the copiers and fax machines, and access the Internet directly from the convention center. In addition, says Ludwig, "We had three separate, private interview rooms with nice backdrops and plants, and ASCO's logo, where the broadcast media could conduct interviews."
A total of seven press conferences were held throughout the meeting, with the admonishment that all research was to be embargoed until the time of the presentation, not the time of the media briefings. Daily one-hour sessions were held to give media members the opportunity to question prominent cancer professionals in various specialties.
One thing ASCO had to pay close attention to, given the large numbers of broadcast media representatives who covered the meeting, was Los Angeles' limitations on the number of satellite trucks that can be at the convention center. "The fire marshals also are very strict in Los Angeles, so we had to monitor camera crews to ensure that they were shouldering their cameras, not setting up tripods or plugging their cameras in anywhere," says Ludwig.
Added for this year's meeting was an 800-number conference service, where reporters who couldn't be physically present at the meeting could phone in and actually hear the press conferences firsthand.