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Stop, Look and Listen

Since biotechnology is still so mysterious to a lot of people it’s going to require our humility and society’s acceptance or permission, if you will, to fully reach that goal.

By Dan Eramian
Vice President Communications
Biotechnology Industry Organization

Delivered at the Global Public Affairs Institute
Johnson & Johnson
New Brunswick, New Jersey
February 1, 2001

Good Morning … thank you for inviting me here today.

I was asked to speak today about bioethics and the unique communications challenges for the biotechnology industry.

Most of our communication goals are the same as yours, ---marketplace success.

But since biotechnology is still so mysterious to a lot of people it’s going to require our humility and society’s acceptance or permission, if you will, to fully reach that goal.

"How to" communicate biotechnology effectively to audiences to win that acceptance is a real challenge and a challenge you may face in the future.

After 25 years in communications and public affairs, here’s the most important lesson I have learned.

Sometimes it is not the enemy that causes the most damage – sometimes it is our own disconnected, uncoordinated, ill-planned efforts that hurt our efforts the most.

I believe we sometimes fire, aim, and get ready when we try to get our messages to stick.

We do things backward or out of order.

The truth is, we don’t spend enough time finding out who our audiences are or what really makes them tick — what do they most care about and respond to.

We too often rely on superficial findings from polls, focus groups and feedback from TV ads that tell us the nice things that we want to hear and that make our CEOs feel good.

There’s a passage from the Bible, first chapter James, verse 19,

"Be swift to hear, slow to speak…"

Too often we are too swift to speak and too slow or even too stubborn or too focused to hear in trying to communicate.

Let me tell you about 3 personal experiences that have helped me deal with the communication challenges in biotechnology.

First, in 1991, I was the director of public affairs at Department of Justice when we announced that Exxon Corporation was pleading guilty to 3 criminal acts and paying the largest environmental fine in history because of the Valdez oil spill.

Exxon, understandably, did not come to this agreement easily.

Exxon fought it literally to the last minute.

The day before the settlement was made public, Exxon officials asked me if they could hold a press conference right after the government concluded their announcement. Sure.

After the Attorney General answered the last press question, the cameras switched to the Exxon officials.

On cue, I heard the same message from Exxon I had for the last year: this agreement will not hurt our bottom line.

The next day The Washington Post quoted Exxon’s chairman as saying that the settlement was, "in the best interest of Exxon shareholders…"

Even though there were endless TV images of dead and dying wildlife, endless protests from environmental groups, and angry consumers,

All the public and I heard was the "bottom line" will be okay.

But, "bottom line" success is not enough for biotech companies.

Now, I understand the pressure corporations are under to deliver to shareholders. I have seen enough of our CEOs checking their stock prices during board of directors meetings to understand that.

But I believe Exxon was a corporation so focused on pleasing its shareholders that it lost sight of the need to protect and build trust with the public as a whole.

I worry that the biotechnology industry, which out of necessity puts such tremendous emphasis on satisfying shareholders and investor audiences, will forget, like Exxon, to build trust with the public.


You can have a technology that works, Wall Street support and investor support and still fail if your customers are nervous about your science, products or corporate actions.

This is especially so for an industry whose drugs and foods affect our lives in such personal ways.



Second, one of our most important bioethics challenges at BIO came in early 1995.

There was a front-page story in the NY Times about a new group called the Joint Appeal against Human and Animal Patenting.

Nearly 200 religious leaders from almost every possible faith had signed a petition calling for the US government to place a moratorium on the patenting of genetic material.

We saw this as a challenge to continue our scientific research and our ability to raise capital to continue that research.

Having never heard of this group or their motivations, we of course fired, aimed and got ready, issuing a strong rebuke to their crazy ideas in the press.

We never bothered to learn their values, beliefs, and fears about new technology, something we should probably have known through proper research even before they coalesced as a group to confront us.

We then spent the next several months writing to everyone who signed the petition telling them of the consequences to medical research without patenting.

Some replied.

Those who did said, they didn’t understand the connection between patenting genes and medical research—and some said they didn’t care.

They signed the petition because they thought technology was moving too fast, that industry pays no attention to the moral or ethical questions that arise from new technology, and this was one way to get our attention.

These are attitudes for which we should have been prepared.

They did not just appear out of anywhere. They are in the collective values and beliefs of the public and its opinion leaders.

A few months later the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington asked us if we would be willing to participate in a dialogue with members of the Joint Appeal, academics and theologians to discuss the patent issue.

We agreed and for the next year held a series of all day sessions to "hash" this out.

The first session was full of mistrustfulness and tension.

They viewed me and the representative from PhRMA as devils in the pay of a godless industry.

And we looked at them as having "Dark Ages" attitudes toward science and industry.

I am not sure any minds were changed much in the end, but in the act of dialogue each side came away with a better understanding and tolerance for each other’s views.

They learned that biotech researchers do not come up to people with a scalpel and a pair of tweezers and pull out a person’s gene, put it in a jar and get a patent on it.

I could also see that sheer information, even unassailable messages about medical research, no matter how positive, is deficient in building a convincing message when you do not take into account that audience’s values.

We also learned that sometimes the language our industry uses can offend the very same communities we are trying to reach.

When researchers say we have found the fountain of youth,

or we can genetically engineer life the way we want

or we now have God’s instructions for life, these religious leaders take great offense. They automatically think we are going to play God.

I am not sure I would have learned this in an ordinary national poll or an interview at the mall. Clearly, we were not ready to deal with religious audiences.

And finally--- there’s Dolly!

On a Sunday morning in February 1997, I picked up the NY Times and on the front page was the story about "Dolly", the cloned sheep.

We had no warning about this, but I could only imagine what the general public was thinking—more mad science out of control.

Within an hour, BIO’s President issued a statement to the media saying that while BIO recognizes the scientific achievement here,

We were calling for a moratorium on the cloning of a human being. We even recommended criminal penalties for violators.

Now you might think that making that statement was easy. Not so.

Some of our CEOs, who are scientists, were critical of us for appearing to stand in the way of scientific advancement, which should never, never be done in their view.

We argued that society needs time to "catch úp" with new technology -- --and not to call for putting on the brakes in this instance would surely have been an act of supreme deafness – it was the right thing to do.

And as corporations and industry become larger and more powerful than governments, I believe society is looking more and more to industry to do the right thing.

Since Dolly, BIO has established a Bioethics Committee to help us anticipate such scientific advances so that we can be better prepared to answer questions from the public and the media.

BIO has also established a statement of Principles for all our members.

We can proudly wave it in front of the media, and say we are very moral people—but you and I know this is not enough.

A trade association cannot force corporate behavior; we can only set examples.

In the end, bioethics is about our own industry’s and companies ethics and reputation.

Part of bioethics is how effectively we communicate what we are about and how we build TRUST with our audiences.

I remember having a conference call with BIO’s communications committee last fall to discuss the image of the pharmaceutical industry which was being battered because of the pricing debate in Congress.

And while biotech generally gets better treatment on Capitol Hill, the more drugs we get on the market and the more gmo crops and foods we develop the more we face the same public scrutiny and frustration.

We asked ourselves, how could people get mad at industry?

We are developing therapies where none existed; we are trying to find a cure for cancer and developing crops and foods that are more nutritious and better for the environment.

Yet, it seems at times we are facing a fracture in relationships with our customers – the public.

One of our communication colleagues said with enormous frustration "… we have a great story to tell, but nobody is listening."

So I challenge you, as well as myself; maybe we are the ones not listening enough or in the right way.

Maybe the public is not listening because we have not dug down deep enough to explore our audience’s convictions and beliefs.

Republicans used to criticize Democrats for just throwing money at social problems and expecting the ills of society to just go way.

Well just throwing facts and information at our audiences – even positive facts may not convince them.

Digesting endless facts, or TV images, devoid of emotion is not the way the public comes to long term judgments on issues.

Their values, as we saw with religious leaders, often override facts.

And what conventional polls, survey and focus groups rarely tell us is whom the public really trusts for its sources of information.

What credibility does the spokesperson have?

It may not be your CEO; it may not be your trade association. It may not even be a doctor or researcher.

So, even if we have the right or acceptable message we must be sure who should deliver it.

Let me conclude by saying that we in the biotechnology industry are lucky to have a relatively clean canvas upon which to draw our corporate and industry images.

When I started at BIO seven years ago, the critics said the technology doesn’t work. We now have over 100 drugs and vaccines on the market, and last year’s 33 FDA approvals was a record.

Seven years ago the critics said Wall Street would not support us. Last year we raised over $40 billion, another record.

All that’s left in the industry’s business plan is to continually win the public’s trust.

We’re still new; people don’t have a focused image of us.

But daily front page stories about mind-boggling scientific breakthroughs which on one hand may mean progress to scientists or profits to investors, could also mean another step toward erosion of what it means to be human for people, not to mention the erosion of their social, ethical and privacy concerns.

In the end I have no doubt that we will be granted that public permission and will achieve marketplace success.

There is one thing I have seen over and over again in focus groups, regardless of geography, educational level, ethnic background, or political persuasion, Americans are fair.

But, we must be READY to connect with their values and concerns through careful listening.

And as we then gain a more compassionate and sophisticated understanding of our public, we will be able to AIM more persuasive communications, so that as we FIRE our messages, we strike the bull’s eye at the target of public acceptance and success in the marketplace.

But we have to take the first step…we have to stop, look and listen.