Should Bloggers Dine at Pharma’s Table? OpEd by John Mack

Pharmaceutical companies are getting more and more interested in blogs and are inviting bloggers inside to pick there brains.

Recently, however, J&J went a step further and invited about six bloggers to free dinner and drinks at an upscale NYC restaurant. These bloggers were not patients or physicians, but professionals writing about pharmaceutical industry practices. At least two were journalists.

I was invited, but cancelled at the last minute. More on that later.

The question is: Should bloggers who write about the industry accept free gifts (eg, dinner) from the pharmaceutical industry or should they adopt journalistic standards and participate but pay their own way?

The J&J meetup was organized by by Marc Monseau, the director of media relations at J&J. Marc called me in February to invite me to an “informal gathering” to talk about medical blogging and the different communities in this space. It sounded like an interesting opportunity, but for what I wasn’t sure. Marc really had no agenda or questions he could share beforehand. So, it sounded like a fishing expedition to me.

As I told Marc, I don’t work for a large corporation with an expense account. My time is my money.

I asked if I would be compensated for my time, but Marc demurred. So, he suggested meeting for drinks and conversation. Unfortunately, I only drink during dinner. “Make it dinner with those drinks,” I said, “and you got yourself a deal!”

And that’s how this dinner thing got started. I feel responsible because I am sure that Marc had something much simpler in mind.

Regrettably, I cancelled at the last minute, which lead to some gossip among the attendees. Anyone with a suspicious mind–ie, most PR people–might view my last minute cancellation as an insult or manipulation on my part. After all, now I am writing about bloggers accepting free meals from pharma and I can take the high road because I did not partake.

By the way, I cancelled for personal reasons (think of the side effects of GSK’s anti-obesity drug Alli and you may guess what those reasons were). So, J&J, please don’t hate me!

But the question remains: Should bloggers dine at pharma’s table? If so, under what circumstances? Is there a danger that bloggers will lose whatever “street creds” they have if they accept gratuities and/or fees from pharmaceutical companies?

It did cross my mind that this could be an issue when I first suggested dinner, but I thought harder about it after a conversation with Jim Edwards, Brandweek editor and blogger at BrandweekNRX. He was concerned about how to pay for the dinner because he could not accept such a freebie. He has since worked out a way to pay his share as has Ed Silverman over at Pharmalot.

The majority of attendees of the J&J soiree were PR wonks or journalists-birds of a feather that the J&J corporate communications people could easily relate to. Only two of the four journalist bloggers that attended–Jim Edwards and Ed Silverman (Pharmalot blog/Newark Star Ledger)–have indicated what their policy is regarding accepting free gifts–including dinner.

Journalists like Ed and Jim just cannot accept any gratuity from the people they may be investigating and writing stories about. That seems pretty clear.

For me, the decision wasn’t so easy. Bloggers who are not also journalists are a special case. I’m an even more special case–sort of in between a journalist blogger and an ordinary blogger. I’m a newsletter publisher/blogger. I also wear all the hats, including the business development hat, which requires that I schmooze with advertisers and help them promote their products and services. So, wining and dining with clients and potential clients is something I do all the time.

Clearly, transparency on all sides is essential.

That being the case, I should mention that from time to time I am hired by pharmaceutical companies either directly or through third parties. In the past year, I have worked on projects for J&J, Pfizer, and Ortho-McNeil. These projects were related to privacy issues, training, eHealth policy trends, and presentations about managing risks involved in online marketing (see, for example, “The Brand Marketing Mix“).

Issue: Vol. 6, No.3: March 2007

Word Count: n/a

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