On Tuesday I got involved in a good, old fashioned almighty Twitterstorm. Kicked off by the recent re-ignition of the age-old breast implant debate, it effectively centred around Newsnight, and the embattled Health Minister Anne Milton, besieged on all sides by parties with a variety of grievances.
Star of the show, however, was Naomi Wolf, who waded in calmly and with considerable dignity to point out that the dangers of breast implants aren’t exactly a surprise. As she said with delicious poise, ‘I wrote a book about this, which was reported in every major news outlet’. She referred to ‘twenty five years of data’, and told Milton, quite simply ‘if you don’t know this, you’re in the wrong job’.
As I subsequently tweeted, we should pity as much as we chuckle at the poor ministry PR pixie who seemingly failed to even google the issue before her boss went on air- bright eyed interns everywhere take note. However, there is something far more sinister than ‘Thick of It’-esque bungling here.
Looking into the issue following the debate, I came across this article from PR watch, 1996, which highlights in great detail that which we more or less already knew- that for as long as there has been data on the dangers of silicone implants, there has been a PR answer to the public questions.
Detailing Burson-Marsteller’s plan, and its execution over almost a decade, to rehabilitate Dow Corning’s shattered image following their 1985 Federal court loss with Nevada resident Maria Stern over her ‘defectively designed and manufactured’ breast implants. The plan, which went through several iterations in its quest to quell public outcry, refers repeatedly to a ‘long-term cover up’, ‘networking’ (read: buying out) respected members of the surgical community, and perhaps most shamefully ends up in a long term campaign to deflect media attention onto the minority of women who’d had breast implants as a quasi-necessary post-cancer treatment. It’s attitude toward the Cancer Coalition? ‘I scratch your back…’.
Of course, we saw no representatives of the industry on Newsnight the other night, we’ve seen few corporate statements in the press. That’s because, as anyone who’s spent more than half an hour in corporate comms can tell you, in a crisis the best action is usually no action. However, even the most cynical among us must call for those responsible to take some flack, rather than passing it on to woefully incompetent politicians.
What’s more, surely an attitude of controlled but truthful apology would benefit individual organisations as well as the pharmaceutical industry as a whole. With lobbying spend across the pharmaceutical industry reaching $115m last year, I dread to think what’s been splashed out already to the various delighted PRs handling this. Yet repeatedly the missteps of Big Pharma make the news. Each time, a pretty effective damage limitation machine lumbers into place, but cumulatively public trust has reached extremely low levels.
Perhaps if some of the spinners involved grew a spine and approached this situation with a new honesty, the long term effects might be of benefit to all. Then again, this is probably just the idealism of one who still believes publicity noise can be to the public good. Just pity the poor new junior researcher in the Ministry of Health- he won’t be going on any dates this valentines day.