Fever Pitch: Straight talk about PR from Life Science Journalists

Randy Osborne became a biotechnology journalist at a time when very few people even knew what biotechnology was. “I was attracted as a writer to the word ‘biotechnology’,” said Osborne, a 40-year veteran journalist specializing in biotech reporting for the past 17 years. Osborne began his career as a general interest journalist in search of a niche where he could gain expertise. “I was excited for what biotech sounded like. It was like jumping on a moving train, and the train kept moving and going faster. I’m glad I did it.”

“The idea of biological technology was fascinating to me,” said Osborne. I don’t have a Phd in biochemistry as do many of the people I work among or interview. It was a very steep learning curve, and it took me about 10 years before I really felt proficient at it. Luckily, the editor of BioWorld at the time was a seasoned newspaper man, as I was, so he took me on and showed me the ropes.”

BioWorld is a daily newsletter that exclusively and extensively covers biopharma news while striving to maintain an objective view on subjects ranging from deals between biotech and pharma, biotech-biotech deals, pharma-pharma deals, financing, and clinical trial results, among others. A particular focus area is “small companies that are making their way, who are joining the battle and struggling to stay afloat,” said Osborne. “Personally, I’m attracted by those stories, but we cover whatever the news is that day, whatever is moving the stock or looks intriguing, whether it’s late stage clinical work or is an especially big deal, moneywise. Those stories are ones we are interested in.”

Communications Skills Create The Easiest Entry Point

Osborne, known for his headlines, tries to be as objective, careful, and fair as possible in his reporting and hopefully make the reading experience enjoyable and informative. This is not an easy task, especially when working under deadline.

Time is something that is especially important for PR people to understand, according to Osborne. He and his fellow staff members typically deal with PR people three to four times a week, usually on the basis of a press release. The best case scenario is a well-written press release with a contact name and information at the bottom for Osborne to email or call.

“I might call and say ‘We’re doing this story,’ and explain my deadline and when I have to file,” said Osborne, “and of course, the sooner he can get in touch with the PR rep, the better, especially when he has to deal with the company. This is how things usually happen.”

Email is a preferred method of communication because “most PR people know that if its a blind call we probably won’t answer because we have too many other things to do,” said Osborne. “Email is probably the way I prefer to be contacted, and I think many others do, too.”

“It used to be, in the old days when I started, the phone calls were annoying,” said Osborne. “But I get very few phone calls now; it’s mostly emails.”

PR Pitches That Have Legs

Sometimes, although not often, Osborne will get a direct pitch from a PR person where there is no press release related to it, is designed to drum up interest in a company. If it’s an intriguing company, or a new company, Osborne will usually refer it for a section called “New Cos” focused on start-up companies. “Maybe they have a series A round of financing, or maybe they don’t, but that’s a whole department in the newsletter that people seem to like,” said Osborne.

Osborne tends to do a lot of enterprise stories, where there may not be an explicit lead for the daily news, but there may be something interesting about the company or the data that he forwards to their weekly publication BioWorld Insight. “These stories are especially a good fit, but we also do run them in the daily, especially if there is competition that’s bubbling in the space that could offer an interesting angle,” said Osborne.

Osborne doesn’t usually need to pass story leads around because most PR people who pitch him have pitched other writers on the BioWorld staff. This is a smart tactic for PR people, to not put all their eggs in one basket. But if a pitch he receives is particularly relevant to a story one of his colleagues is working on, such as Alzheimer’s or rheumatoid arthritis, and the story has some potential, then he will pass it along. “Peter Winter, who is head of BioWorld Insight, is sometimes interested in big-picture stories that I don’t feel are quite right for the daily,” said Osborne,”so I will send those along to him to see if he has interest.”

Generally, PR reps could make his life easier by giving him really concise pitches, and developing the ability to understand when to back off after they’ve made the pitch, and to wait and see what happens. “Something that may be somewhat different for me is, I’ve actually always had good relationship with most PR people,” said Osborne. “I like them, and I like what they do. I understand what they do. I think their jobs are not as as despicable as a lot of journalists used to think they were.”

Know Your News And What Makes It Compelling

Osborne recommends PR reps who want their email to get opened to make sure the subject line is a grabber. “If it’s about a deal, put the money right in the subject line, and if it’s a deal with no money, name the two companies in the subject line,” said Osborne. “If the subject is clinical trial results, tell me what phase it is in the subject line.”

Osborne said that PR professionals should definitely make him aware of a press release that he may have previously seen where perhaps an new story angle has developed. For example, if a company has phase I or phase II clinical trial results, it will likely be a harder sell than phase III, with the exception of topics like gene therapy or a phase IIb where the company could file. Experienced PR reps “generally know when to tap me on the shoulder and point to a press release that we’ve already seen,” said Osborne.

A good PR pitch is concise and has the key info in the first paragraph or headline or subject line of the pitch. “If it’s money, we’d like to know how much; if it’s a rare disease, we would like to know about that because there’s a lot of attention on rare diseases now,” said Osborne. The premise is not unlike the principles of journalism, to get all the facts you can in the subject line, or at least in the first few lines of the press release.

Tried And True Advice: Don’t Hide Setbacks

It’s critical that PR and press releases are done right and are not too over the top, but that also don’t try to to understate the story. Osborne cautions against burying or trying to minimize setbacks.

“Don’t bury the failure in the fifth paragraph of the press release about the trial,” said Osborne. “It makes us all look dumb. Just say the trial failed but there was a subset, and put the subset down below; don’t obfuscate it. To do so is pretty annoying because it makes us feel like you think we’re too stupid to know what you just did.”

Another situation that Osborne says he runs into a lot is when a press release comes out, the contact name is given, and he will run with the story. But when he wants to contact the PR person to get some quotes for the story, he will sit around waiting only to find out mid-afternoon that they are traveling and can’t talk to him. “Don’t put out a press release and then jump on a plane, it’s really bad form, and it’s irritating, too,” says Osborne. “I know there might be legal reasons but maybe coordinate that a little better.”

PR Pet Peeves

One of the things that Osborne and his colleagues find frustrating is “the penchant PR people have for giving us two cities where the company is supposedly headquartered, but you know there can only be one,” said Osborne. “They are trying to show the global reach the company has, but it’s a real pain in the neck when you’re trying to write a brief and need to add where the company is headquartered. So then you have to go to the website or some other source to track down in what city the is CEO located. That’s annoying.”

As well, pestering, as in too many emails, too many calls, too many voicemails. “If we are interested we will jump on it,” said Osborne. The exceptions are the few regular PR people who understand how he works, who are good at telling a story, and can position it in their pitch.

“Even if it’s only phase I data or a $20M deal with milestones on the backend but not much up front,” said Osborne, “if they explain the bigger perspective and the ‘why?’, I might be interested. Some PR people are really good at that and I appreciate it because they know what we want and understand why we might not be interested, but also can tell us what we should be interested in without going too overboard or twisting things too much.”

Trending Stories

The easiest stories are those that are on-trend, or that have sustained public interest. Gene therapy is a really big topic, as is Alzheimer’s, said Osborne. He notes that he writes about drug pricing a lot, and that it’s a difficult subject, has many moving parts, and it is hard to get drug companies to talk about it. “It’s tough to be a biotech journalist when you go to family events and someone asks what I do,” said Osborne. “When I say ‘I’m a biotechnology journalist,’ they inevitably bring up drug prices. A lot of people hate drug companies, so even a guy who writes about them isn’t too popular,” laughs Osborne.

When asked what could potentially turn public sentiment on drug pricing issues, Osborne thinks that drug companies should try harder to explain to people how much it costs to develop a drug. “A lot of folks think that because it’s a drug, everyone should have it, that’s it’s some kind of commodity like everything else,” said Osborne. “But the cost of making drugs directly play into the price of them. I know that’s not all there is to it, and it’s true there are drug companies that are [price] gouging like crazy, so it’s complicated.”

“But if they would try harder to convey the message about the cost of developing a given drug and the cost of all the failures along the way, I think people would be a little more understanding,” said Osborne. “I also feel, personally, that when it involves human health, and human lives, maybe companies can take a hit on the cost once in a while so the grandparents can see their grandkids for longer.”

Stay Friendly

Most PR and marketing people are doing a good job, and the job has changed a lot even since 10 years ago. According to Osborne, he gets more professional pitches and sees much more thoughtful writing in press releases these days. “PR people seem to know how hard to push and when to stop pushing so hard,” said Osborne. “I do have some favorite PR reps out there but, generally, they are all pretty good.”

“Every once in awhile I will get email from a PR rep, which happened to me recently, berating me for missing a story,” said Osborne. “Of course we saw the press release, but maybe it just wasn’t worthy of a full story so we briefed it. But insults are something I will keep in mind the next time the PR rep sends me a pitch. ‘You insulted me last time we had contact, so maybe do it different this time.’ So I get those once in a while. I had one call me and say ‘I can’t believe you wrote this story.’ I didn’t know what to say other than ‘Sometimes I amaze myself, too.’”

Common sense dictates that it doesn’t benefit anyone to berate a journalist. Journalists make mistakes like everyone else, which more often than not get pointed out to them. It’s better to consider PR and Journalism like a partnership. That, and listing a single headquarters location, will go a long way toward fostering good relations.