Ending our offer of free pre-publication review of PR news releases

Gary Schwitzer is publisher and founder of HealthNewsReview.org.  He tweets as @garyschwitzer.

We are bewildered.  We don’t know what more we can do.

There’s never been a service like ours that reviews the news and critiques it to try to improve the public dialogue about health care in the U.S.   There’s never been a service that reviews the quality of health care PR news releases.  And there certainly has never been a free service that offered to review draft news releases prior to publication to try to improve the often sorry state of such news releases.

We offered that pre-publication review service to PR professionals for the past 20 months.  I talked about the service at a meeting of PR professionals of the Association of American Medical Colleges.  We promoted it in our weekly email digests that reach 6,000 people every week.  We promoted it on our website.

And who took us up on the offer?  A whopping seven institutions. What more can we do?

Why so few?

I asked for an opinion from Earle Holland, who, for nearly 35 years, was the senior science and medical communications officer at Ohio State University.  He wrote me:

“I don’t think it’s because writers simply don’t want one more level of review.  Public information officers (PIOs) who write releases in most large research-based medical centers have little or no decision-making authority.  Their charge, all too often, is to make the researchers happy by acquiescing to the preferences of their docs when it comes to explaining content.  In my experience, few such PIOs have the authority to overrule researchers, even if the latter exaggerated or misrepresented their work.  Until these PIOs earn the right to have the final editorial say over the releases they write, we’ll still have problems with questionably trustworthy news releases.”

Positive feedback from the few who took us up on our offer

From an editor of a university news bureau:

“Thank you so much for the feedback. It is much appreciated. I’m trying to address most of the suggestions, which I think are very good…. This is an extremely helpful process! I am most grateful.”

From a university’s director of media relations:

“We largely took your input and comments to heart, tweaking the release in several places. The release went off embargo today to substantial media coverage. And while some of the media tended to focus too narrowly or breathlessly, most reporters so far seem to have understood the mix of interesting science findings tempered by lots of caveats. Again, we appreciate the help. On releases like these, which have many stakeholders and lots of potential landmines, more heads are better.”

From a medical association’s press officer:

“I’d really like to thank you for the work you have put into this. It is extremely helpful to get a view from ‘outside the bubble,’ there are often things which I miss, or which I hadn’t thought of.”

From a PR rep for a private medical practice:

“I appreciate your follow up and recommendations for the release. We’ve reworked the release incorporating a number of your suggestions.”

From an industry trade group’s communications director:

“Thanks for reviewing our press release. We are making some of the changes you suggested, such as adding cost information and including a comparison to other research.”

It’s not like many more don’t need the help

We’ve now reviewed nearly 600 PR news releases that included claims about interventions – treatments, tests, products and procedures.

Here is the percent of unsatisfactory scores for those 600 PR efforts:

Did the news release adequately explain costs of the intervention?  93% unsatisfactory

Did the news release adequately explain potential harms of the intervention? 78% unsatisfactory

Did the news release adequately explain potential benefits of the intervention? 73% unsatisfactory

Did the news release evaluate the quality of the evidence?  73% unsatisfactory

Did the news release compare the new idea with existing alternatives?  59% unsatisfactory

Did the news release identify funding sources and disclose any conflicts of interest? 53% unsatisfactory

Did the news release explain the availability of the intervention? 38% unsatisfactory

Did the news release explain the true novelty of the intervention? 38% unsatisfactory

Did the news release use unjustifiable, sensational language, including in the quotes of researchers? 37% unsatisfactory

Why it matters

We have documented countless examples in which news stories parrot what they receive in news releases and publish it without independent vetting.

This is a pox on the houses of both journalism and public relations. But the PR news release is often where the faucet of polluted information gets turned on, and where it can be turned off.

Phil Galewitz of Kaiser Health News and a member of the board for the Association of Health Care Journalists wrote on Twitter recently:

“What if every health care press release followed these 10 criteria from HealthNewsReview.org?”

Unfortunately, news consumers and health care consumers will continue to live in a “What if?” world, wondering why, once we’re gone, nobody seems to care enough to do much about this crap.  Look at those unsatisfactory grade statistics above and let them sink in. Earle Holland predicts you will see more of the same:

Surprisingly, many research institutions lack an actual policy on how news releases are written, who reviews them or what they need to include.  Without a formal policy outlining what releases require, institutions will continue to be embarrassed like the University of Maryland over their chocolate milk-concussion fiasco, or the University of Iowa over its claims that oregano can affect the cancer-wasting syndrome.

So we are ending our offer of assistance to those who write health care PR news releases.  With our days numbered, I need our small staff to focus for the next month on work that stands a better chance of making a difference.

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Comments (1)

Please note, comments are no longer published through this website. All previously made comments are still archived and available for viewing through select posts.

Tom Parkhill

December 3, 2018 at 9:14 am

I agree with Earle Holland. We’d need to have been close to the finished product before sending a press release to you, and that means having arrived at an agreed version with the author and our internal reviewers. Introducing another review, and externally-suggested changes, would have been difficult for the authors and other reviewers. There is also the time factor; authors tend to do things at the last minute – they have other things to do. And another set of changes means another delay while we consult both the authors (sometimes several of them) and our own reviewers. If this is a couple of days before our deadline, it just won’t happen.

After a certain point, the press officer never has the in-depth experience to really know if the final release is over or under sold. I think that an internal review team – e.g. having several general reviewers in the organisation which is issuing the press release, works reasonably well. We also try to put the final product to someone with real expertise in the field. I’d like to see this formalised, perhaps by asking our press release reviewers to consider your guidelines.