The bidding rises: last week’s health care PR offer to reporters was $100. It’s $250 this week!

Maybe the cat is out of the bag, after one sleazy PR campaign was uncovered and publicized last week. That one was about a company offering to pay journalists $100 for every “patient who sees the press release in your newspaper and commits to our exclusive and effective process.”

But now freelance journalist Lisa Collier Cool has given me permission to share her story. She writes:

“I have received a truly appalling offer of a bribe of $250 to attend an Allergan-sponsored media presentation on Botox, Juvederm and Latisse, which…seems to me like a new low in trying to buy media coverage of pharma products. The offer is below:”

Dear Lisa:

I work now with Allergan and we’d like to invite you along with a select small group of reporters to participate in a Facial Aesthetics Advisory Panel in New York City on Thursday, June 9, hosted by Allergan, Inc., the makers of BOTOX® Cosmetic (onabotulinumtoxinA), JUVEDERM® dermal fillers, and LATISSE® (bimatoprost ophthalmic solution) 0.03%.

The goal of this Panel is to engage in a discussion about current facial aesthetics trends and innovations, perceived gaps in data, and any questions, concerns or misperceptions your readers may have about products and treatments. Allergan will provide an overview of the evolution of the facial aesthetics marketplace and then will open the panel for discussion.

As a seasoned reporter in this space, we would greatly value your feedback, and we’d like to offer you a stipend of $250 for your attendance and insights.

We hope you will consider this opportunity and we will be in touch soon. In the meantime, please let me know if you would like more information.

Many of our readers may be shocked by this offer.

Journalist-readers probably won’t be. When I asked on Twitter if last week’s publicized episode was the sleaziest anyone had heard of, one journalist wrote, “Not even close.”

We’re at $250. Do I hear a bid for $500?…..

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Abe Wischnia

May 12, 2011 at 7:06 pm

Let me start by saying that as one who was a journalist before moving over into PR, I firmly believe that the practice of PR can and must be ethical. Offering to pay journalists to cover a product is wrong.
In reading your post, though, I found myself wondering whether there might have been a misunderstanding that was a result of a poorly crafted pitch by Allergan’s agency. If you omit the third paragraph, then it could be interpreted as a request to be on a panel to solicit input they will use to help shape the messaging as they craft a campaign. The offer of money could have been intended as a stipend for taking time out of a busy day, not too unlike offering people money to be part of a focus group.
But it doesn’t read at all like the blatantly pathetic bribe attempt you wrote about on May 4. I don’t see this as saying the money is for coverage.
I’m not trying to defend Allergan or their agency. I don’t know them or anyone involved in this. If the intent was a bribe, then it was sleazy and wrong.
Did you or Lisa call the person who sent the note to clarify?

Gary Schwitzer

May 12, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Thanks for your note.
As I originally posted, I communicated with Lisa by email to get her permission to post this and to seek further perspective. She wrote to me:
“I think this new low in shockingly unethical pharma promotion to reporters should be widely publicized, which would presumably help curtail further sleazy offers of this nature.”
Reactions from Allergan and their agency appear at the following link:
Anyone trained in journalism who moves into PR must know that an invitation like this – even for paid focus group participation – is an invitation to a reporter to dance on thin ice if not clearly break through that ice into the slippery slope of favors granted for pay.
Lisa viewed it as a bribe. She was the recipient of the note. The perception is in the eyes of the recipient.

Pia Christensen

May 13, 2011 at 9:14 am

I contacted the PR rep who sent the invitation and her response is in this follow-up post:
PR rep says journalists’ stipend to attend Allergan event was misconstrued

Gary Schwitzer

May 13, 2011 at 10:08 am

Thanks, Pia.
And it’s good to see that Lisa Collier Cool has also responded to the PR rep’s response.
She writes:
“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.” ”