Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) and Direct-to-Physician (DTP) marketing have been the two staples of pharmaceutical marketing for many years. Now there is another kind of pharma marketing emerging: Direct to Journalist (DTJ)!

I have written previously about Pfizer’s new strategy to “woo” journalists (see “Chantix ‘Roundtable’ Apparently Not Round and Not a Table” and “Pfizer’s PR Chief: ‘How in the hell do we have such a bad reputation?’“). This is a followup with a new twist to the story.

With regard to journalists, “our core strategy,” said Pfizer’s global PR chief, Ray Kerins, is “engage and educate,” which, IMHO, can be loosely translated to “free lunch and schmooze,” the same strategy that has worked so well in marketing to physicians.

Unable to send physicians on all-expenses paid junkets due to self-imposed industry restrictions on gifts to physicians, Pfizer apparently has shifted its junket budget to journalists who seem eager to accept the offer.

On the right is an ad from an e-newsletter sent by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). I found this on the Schwitzer health news blog written by Gary Schwitzer of the University of Minnesota School of Journalism & Mass Communication.

“Fifteen fellowships will be awarded and they all include lodging, airfare and most meals,” says the ad copy.

The ad mentions the focus of the program will be “using journalism to inform the public about the leading cause of illness and death worldwide,” but then reveals that the fellowship will actually be focused on “Cancer Issues.”

The World Health Organization lists cardiovascular disease as one of the Top 10 Causes of Death worldwide. No form of cancer makes the list. It’s interesting that Pfizer has said it will no longer focus its research on cardiovascular disease — but it WILL focus on cancer. Coincidentally (?), I noticed this story: “Pfizer Seeks 10-fold Rise in Global Cancer-Drug Sales by 2018.”

Ah Ha! It all seems to make sense now. Pfizer is schmoozing — sorry “engaging” — budding journalists who, in the future, are likely to be writing about Pfizer’s new products designed to treat cancer, which is NOT a “leading cause of illness and death worldwide,” but certainly the most expensive-to-treat and most profitable-to-treat illness worldwide.

It’s very important to Pfizer to get journalists on its side when reporting about the new, expensive drugs it has in store for treating cancer. The money that governments and insurance companies will have to spend for these drugs, which may extend life for very short periods of time, is staggering (see “New Cancer Drugs: Most Not Worth the Cost?“; obviously written by a journalist who needs this fellowship!). Consequently, any pharmaceutical company wishing to be successful in the cancer market has to prove that its products are worth the money. It will need data, of course, to do this and it will need to “spin” the data to “prove” that the product is well worth the money. That’s where journalists come into the picture and to pharma’s table.

Most cancer treatments are complex biologics, not pills, which are easy to produce and administer. Doctors who treat cancer are allowed to resell these biologics at a great profit. It is not necessary, therefore, to schmooze doctors in order to get market share for your product. On the other hand, journalists — if not properly “engaged” — can ruin your success by publishing the wrong kind of stories (like the one cited above).

One of the topics to be addressed at the National Press Foundation’s “Cancer Issues III 2009” 4-day program for journalists (“Underwritten by Pfizer, Inc.”) is:

“Reporting published research: Translating medical journal articles is an acquired art. Some tips on understanding, dissecting and writing on the latest research”

Should this “acquired art,” which journalists must master, be taught via a Pfizer-sponsored program? Isn’t there a definite conflict of interest here? It is very similar to the case of pharma-sponsored continuing medical education (CME) programs offered to doctors. But in the case of this and other “continuing journalism education” programs, there are no rules and regulations as there is for pharma-sponsored CME. No accreditation organization. No separation between “church and state” in the sponsoring company.

Here’s what Gary Schwitzer has to say from a journalist’s perspective:

“As an SPJ member, and as the keynote speaker at a recent SPJ ethics week event… the national president gave me a plaque with the SPJ code of ethics on it. I remind SPJ that its own code of ethics includes these clauses:

“Journalists should:

  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
  • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
  • Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.

“If taking free airfare, lodging and meals from a drug company whose work you cover isn’t at least a perceived conflict of interest, I don’t know what it is. And I don’t think SPJ should promote events in its own newsletter that, in my reading, invites journalists to violate the SPJ code.”

BTW, I applied for a fellowship. Hope I get chosen!

Related article: Are Clinical Trial Results Compromised By Money?