A health care PR man writes on the ethics of getting it right

After recently posting our 3rd annual year-ender on health care PR crap we receive, it is only right that I afford some space to this guest post by a health care PR person. The following was submitted, unsolicited, by Dan Henkel , APR, Senior Director, Communication and Advocacy, American College of Sports Medicine.  (The APR after his name requires some explanation.  Henkel advises: “my wife thinks it means Almost Past Redemption. The Public Relations Society of America touts it as standing for accreditation in public relations, which includes a strong emphasis on the code of ethics that’s linked in my blog entry.”)


Stereotypes of PR flaks and hucksters—based on disturbing nuggets of reality—may cause some to snicker at the thought, but true public relations professionals are governed by a strict code of ethics. For every rudderless spinmeister, there are an untold number of practitioners across a range of specialties, guided by the conviction that the free exchange of ideas is in the public interest. Journalists, too, come in for some deserved criticism. However, in a bitterly competitive, wholly unpredictable business, the vast majority help us make sense of things while adhering to their own professional code. Those of us in either line of work travel a path of progressive understanding of our responsibilities to the profession and to society at large.

Sometimes public relations involves selling, other times persuading, perhaps just sharing information. We seek to develop interest in our product, support for our position or awareness of what we say. Instinctively, I look for the WOW factor—content that merits attention and a closer look. In a cluttered environment, the shiny gets noticed.

Yet not all that glitters has equal merit. In sharing research results or recommendations for health and fitness, validity and accuracy matter. The stakes are high. People can be hurt by bad advice. While it’s tempting to tout a small-scale study that hints of a breakthrough treatment, it’s irresponsible. My employer, the American College of Sports Medicine, is a multi-disciplinary organization founded on science. Position stands, guidelines and policy recommendations are evidence-based and openly debated. We publish and share the definitive work in sports medicine and exercise science; beyond that, we seek to educate professionals and the public so that they can make their own judgments.

In my shop—communications—we’ve learned a great deal from Gary Schwitzer and HealthNewsReview.org. The 10 Criteria for Responsible Health Reporting provide a roadmap for getting it right. Considerations of strength of evidence, relative benefit and cost are always on our minds. We want those reading our news releases to distinguish a case history read at a conference from a randomized clinical trial published in a peer-reviewed journal. The practices in our department are informed by ACSM’s commitment to science and evidence. They’re individual standards that reflect the culture of the organization.

In the past, I was proud to have a client’s press release reprinted as a news story. Now, I look for corroboration or comment from an independent expert. This reflects my own journey as a communications professional—and more than a little enlightenment from Gary and his colleagues. It’s a journey we can all take together, toward ever-unfolding knowledge that will better serve us all. I thank HealthNewsReview.org for nudging us along the path, and I invite other organizations to join us by supporting the 10 criteria.


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