Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bloggers Can Spread the Word, Just Not About the Sponsors' Competitors

The internet, social media, web 2.0 etc have changed how important health care issues are discussed. So, it is not surprising that big health care organizations are trying to use these new media to promote their messages. New media, however, are no more immune from the effects of conflicts of interest than are old media.

An article from corporate communications company about how the American Heart Association (AHA) is using bloggers to get people interested in a heart-healthy diet and exercise program illustrates how even "civilian" bloggers can get caught up in the web of conflicts of interest that pervades health care. The background is:

Keeping track of the conversations on the array of social media networks can gobble up your workday. So why not find someone else to do it for you?

The American Heart Association did just that, approaching four established bloggers with a proposal: Write about our new campaign, Go Red For Women: BetterU, and we’ll link to your blog from our site. BetterU is a 12-week online nutrition and fitness program to improve heart health among women.

The blogs appear to be working. They’ve helped drive traffic to Go Red/BetterU since the program’s June 1 launch.

It did seem that the AHA went to considerable effort to make sure they had recruited just the right bloggers.

The AHA researched potential candidates with the help of agencies Edelman PR and Edelman Digital. After a month-and-a-half, they settled on four bloggers: Joshilyn, Nyasha, Stacey, and Nadia.

The criteria: The bloggers had to be female, have an enthusiastic following, be diverse in age and ethnicity, and have a high Technorati rating. Most important, their content and advertising had to align with the association’s values, says Director of Marketing Anu Gandhi.

'You’re really ultimately picking a spokesperson for Go Red for Women and the larger American Heart Association,' [senior manager for cause communications Megan] Lozito says. 'That’s a really important process for us — that it be correct and that it be the right people. So we spent a lot of time getting to know those ladies and making sure our mission would be aligned.'
More interesting was the values with which the bloggers were supposed to align, particularly those relating to the program's corporate sponsors (see the logos at the bottom right of the BetterU web-site).

From there, the association brought the bloggers to the Dallas headquarters for a full health screening at The Cooper Institute, a photo session, a preview of the BetterU program, and some message training.

Although the BetterU bloggers got some message training in Dallas, Gandhi says AHA has been hands off when it comes to what they can and can’t say about the program.

The bloggers are asked to post once a week about BetterU and follow basic guidelines—no profanity, no defamation, no writing about nor condoning any medications or treatments. She says they also ask bloggers not to talk about competitors of AHA’s two national sponsors: Macy’s and Merck Pharmaceuticals.

I would suspect that the explicit instruction not to favor Merck's competitors would also remind the bloggers not not do say anything that might make the giant pharmaceutical company unhappy.

Eight weeks into the program, they haven’t had any problems.

'There are things we don’t want them to write, like profanity, but that’s also part of the vetting in the beginning,' Lozito says. 'We wanted to find people who believe in our mission, who speak to the same type of audience, but at the same time we want them to have their own flavor and own tone, because it’s a blog.'
So the bloggers recruited by the AHA may be happy, since they now have a big organization's web-site driving traffic to their blogs. The AHA may be happy, since the bloggers can spread the word about their BetterU program. I imagine the marketers at Merck may be happy too, since the bloggers have been warned about the need to keep the corporate sponsors happy. However, what may be good for all the parties in this transaction may not be so good for the general public, as another opportunity for uninhibited, honest discussion of health care issues has been lost.

This is an explicit example of the adverse effects of commercial funding of not-for-profit disease advocacy groups. Corporate sponsors may not expect anything as gross as advertising in return for their money. However, they may expect something more subtle, a generally favorable attitude toward the sponsor, at least the disinclination to say anything that might put the sponsor in a negative light. After all, politeness requires that we be nice to the people who are nice to us. But being nice to sponsors may not be so nice for the people that a health care not-for-profit organization is supposed to serve.

PS - for those who like science fiction, see the preview of the new version of "V," in which Anna, the leader of the Visitors, an invasion force disguised as human-appearing, benign aliens, warns her television interviewer,

Just be sure not to ask anything that would put us in a negative light.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

AHA incidentally pushed HIT and then promoted an HIT Summit at its international meeting last November in New Orleans; with keynote speaker none other than Craig Barrett, the former Intel Board Chair, who brags that his Montana horses have EMRs, while reciting his infomercial.

The AHA did not disclose Intel's "contribution" to the AHA or that it even made one, providing the illusion of independent education.