Chloe Kane & Associates / IPR Diploma
PR item 1 / Issue 1 October 2004

Do you have killer legs?

An Observer investigation has accused the drug giant, Aventis, of covertly funding health pressure groups to help increase the sales of Lovenox, its DVT-relieving drug (Antony Barnett, The Observer, 26/9/04).

The Observer suggests Aventis is ‘in league’ with international PR agency Burson-Marsteller. The agency has set up a pressure group, the Coalition to Prevent Deep-Vein Thrombosis, on behalf of Aventis and runs it from their New York office. The coalition is being used to raise awareness of DVT and to push for more anti-DVT drugs, such as Aventis’ Lovenox, to be used by hospital doctors and public health authorities.

The use of pressure groups to covertly influence public and medical opinion raises interesting ethical questions about what constitutes acceptable PR practice and whose interests PR professionals should serve.

See the full Observer article at:
http://observer.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,6903,1312881,00.html

Tasks

Use the information and links on this page to consider:

  • The ethical implications of Aventis’ PR strategy
    e.g use of pressure groups, shaping of public opinion, amplification of a public health issue

  • How this reflects on Aventis’ CSR approach
    does it operate in a socially responsible way? Are its corporate ethics dominated by a stakeholder or shareholder perspective?

  • The nature of PR professionalism in relation to PR agencies
    If the client comes first, what does this mean for professional ethics (e.g. service in the public good)? Do codes of conduct apply to agencies? How far should a practitioner be responsible for the message content as well as the means of delivery?

  • Where do Burson-Marsteller’s tactics sit in Grunig’s four models of PR practice?
    How strategic is their practice? How symmetrical are they in communication terms?



The Coalition to Prevent Deep-Vein Thrombosis

The coalition presents itself as an independent pressure group with a membership composed of health care professional bodies, academics and other key opinion leaders. Established in February 2003, its ostensible mission is to reduce the immediate and long-term dangers of DVT and pulmonary embolism (PE) which it says “comprise one of the nation’s [America’s] leading causes of death.” The coalition aims to do this through the education of the public, healthcare professionals and policymakers. Neither the involvement of Burson-Marsteller nor Aventis is mentioned on their website or in publicity materials.

See more about the coalition at www.preventdvt.org (the official site of Coalition to Prevent Deep-Vein Thrombosis)

Aventis and DVT

Aventis appear to have a two-pronged communication strategy using both a public health campaign (Killer Legs) and the ‘independent’ coalition to generate public awareness of the DVT issue and to bring pressure to bear on health professionals to prescribe preventative drugs such as Lovenox.

Aventis announced the formation of the coalition in the news section of their website, but do not mention their own involvement either as the initiators or the financial backers.

Excerpt from Aventis press release (accessed 27/10/04):

“Public health leaders in the U.S. have formed the Coalition to Prevent Deep-Vein Thrombosis, in a united effort to raise awareness among consumers, healthcare professionals and policy-makers about deep-vein thrombosis (DVT), and its complication, pulmonary embolism (PE). The Coalition is comprised of more than 30 representatives from nationally known medical societies, patient advocacy groups and other public health organizations.

The Coalition was formed as a result of a meeting held in February 2003, when more than 60 organizations assembled at the Public Health Leadership Conference on Deep-Vein Thrombosis in Washington, D.C. to discuss the need to make DVT a public health priority in the U.S. This conference was co-hosted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Public Health Association (APHA).

As its first action, the Coalition has created DVT Awareness Month to bring attention to this condition on both a national and local level. Activities supporting DVT Awareness Month, which took place in March 2004, include a public service announcement campaign, Web presence, and national and local educational initiatives.”

See the whole release at: www.aventis.com/main/page_s.asp?pageid=546220040806142102

Find out more about Aventis’ corporate values at:
http://www.aventis.com/main/page.asp?pageid=2317276437949701591
&folderid=697846206034783204&lang=en


Burson-Marsteller

Interestingly, there is no mention of their work with Aventis or the Coalition to Prevent Deep-Vein Thrombosis on the Burson-Marsteller website. However, in the ‘expertise’ section on the site, they position the use of such front groups as an innovative tool they have pioneered on behalf of clients facing a hostile public opinion climate. They label this approach ‘constituency relations’.

To quote from the site (Burson-Marsteller corporate site, accessed 27/10/04) the Constituency Relations practice “has led the industry and the corporate world in defining and unleashing the power of nonprofit third-party special interests and advocacy groups in the political and marketing arenas.”

According to their site, the practice specialises in turning business issues into public opinion issues using others to front the cause. They help companies manage and mitigate potential attacks on their activities and products by building up a climate of support that harnesses the power and voice of pressure groups. These same tactics can also be used to create demand for new products, or to put issues on to the public policy agenda that would otherwise be seen as partisan.

“Constituency Relations works strategically with, and through, national and international third-party groups to influence the attitudes, opinions and, ultimately, the actions of policymakers, the press and customers. Constituency Relations creates a favourable climate of interest and support among opinion leaders, legitimizes a client's objective or position, and extends political or marketing reach.”

See the full practice description at:
http://www.bm.com/pages/functional/relations