Are there ethical lines that we cross when we write an “authored article” for our clients? Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa thinks the Wyeth pharmaceutical company and its writing PR firm went too far in ghostwriting articles for doctors in medical journals supporting a Wyeth hormone replacement drug. The New York Times ran a story on Saturday in which Grassley said “any attempt to manipulate the scientific literature, that can in turn mislead doctors to prescribe drugs that may not work and/or cause harm to their patients, is very troubling.”
From the Times story:
Doug Petkus, a Wyeth spokesman, said Friday that Mr. Grassley was recycling old arguments.
“The authors of the articles in question, none of whom were paid, exercised substantive editorial control over the content of the articles and had the final say, in all respects, over the content,” Mr. Petkus said.
Officials for DesignWrite, a Princeton, N.J., firm, and its parent company, JMI, a medical information company in New York, did not return multiple phone calls and e-mail messages requesting comment.
According to the Times story, quoting internal Wyeth documents from Grassley’s probe, DesignWrite wrote the articles under a Wyeth communications plan, completing the manuscripts before they were “sent to the putative author for review. Any revisions were subject to final approval from the company.”
“Such activities would seem to run afoul of medical journal guidelines,” the Times writes. “The World Assoication of Medical Editors, for example, says ghost authorship — which it defines as a substantial contribution not mentioned in the manuscript — is ‘dishonest and unacceptable.’ “
So the Wyeth spokesperson says the docs have final say, and the Grassley documents, which include a “publicaton plan tracking report” from Wyeth, say the company has final say. There’ s one PR problem.
But overall, what’s Kosher in writing articles for someone else? I thought of all this when, for the second time recently, I offered to write an op-ed kind of article for friends who are too busy to do for their own companies what their companies do for their clients.
I have an internal gut measurement. If I’m offering to do a first draft, after interviewing the person whose name will be on the piece about what he or she wants to say, and after reading other things that person has written, and then turning the draft over to that person, I feel fine. I’ve been a pump-primer. I’ve gotten something going. It’s close to what the person would have written if he or she had time to sit in front of a computer for a few hours, and the final draft is in that person’s hands.
But occasionally in my PR career I’ve been around programs where pieces have been written entirely by PR people to support a client’s cause and then the PR team goes looking for people to sign the piece, whether an op-ed or a letter to the editor or a bylined article. And that’s made me feel queasy. Greasy. Clearly, in that case, the ideas and viewpoint are coming from the PR people, not the person who signs the piece. And that I don’t want to be part of. It comes down to where the piece is initiated. If it’s hatched in the mind of the person who signs it, and that person goes looking for a writer, that seems Kosher. If not, not.
I was a little surprised, when I moved from the newsroom to a PR agency and wrote a few op-eds with and for clients, that the op-ed editors fully understood that PR people help write these things. They expect that the piece will accurately reflect the executive’s views, they understand that execs get help writing speeches and other things, and they were OK with the process. And so was I.
What about you, PR folks and journalists out there? What do you think is ethical? What crosses a line?
— Bruce Benidt
purchase order financing nice