Since September 11, public relations professionals have been challenged to secure national news stories not related to the World Trade Center attacks and/or the recent threats of bioterrorism.  In particular, health care stories have focused largely on anthrax and smallpox, leaving little room for stories about new drug studies and approvals.  In the midst of this challenge, MCS implemented a major multi-faceted media campaign in support of a potential new treatment for the common cold, called PICOVIR (pleconaril).  The campaign, conducted on behalf of Aventis Pharmaceuticals and ViroPharma Incorporated, is worthy of the SABRE Gold Award for Product Media Relations as it has resulted in a staggering number of branded media impressions, reaching well over 20 million consumers.
During the 41st annual Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICAAC) in Chicago in December 2001, at which bioterrorism was a major infectious disease topic, Phase III clinical trial results of PICOVIR (pleconaril) for the treatment of the common cold were highlighted at a data presentation and an ICAAC-sponsored press conference.  However, it was clear that the topic of the cold could be overshadowed not only by holiday stories, but also by more timely and serious issues.
For centuries, the common cold has been perceived as a benign illness that should be “toughed out” with conventional remedies such as Mom’s chicken soup and over-the-counter (OTC) symptom-relief products.  Therefore, an added challenge lay in presenting new and unconventional information about the prevalence and burden of the cold, as well as the implications for a potential new antiviral treatment. 
Other communications obstacles were related to the product itself.  PICOVIR is not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA); therefore, media relations efforts had to focus on disease education without over-promoting an experimental compound.  In addition, skepticism already existed about PICOVIR; in studies, PICOVIR has been shown to reduce the duration of the cold by about one day, a difference that caused many to question its value.  Patients also would need to secure a doctor’s appointment and begin a strict dosing regimen within 24 hours of symptom onset.
Our program objectives were to:
  • Redefine the cold by building awareness of the health and economic impact of colds, including prevalence and seriousness; debunk cold myths and conventional wisdom
  • Manage expectations of health care professionals and patients that PICOVIR is not a  “magic bullet” cure for the cold
  • Shape opinion/change behavior of patients and physicians regarding the treatment of colds;
  • Motivate patients to seek treatment at the first sign of their cold
  • Prepare the market for the first-ever prescription cold treatment
Planning for the campaign was a three-tiered process.  First, to build a compelling, consumer story and validate the “problem,” we conducted a national poll of more than 1,000 adults to gauge the impact of colds on a sufferer’s daily life, as well as their perceptions of the safety and efficacy of current OTC cold products.  To further understand the real-life implications of these survey results, we consulted a leading expert, Gary Kay, PhD, at the Washington Neuropsychological Institute, who has devoted a lifetime of work to studying the impact of OTC treatments on cognitive abilities and daily performance.  These survey results would be leveraged via a satellite media tour and Internet posting of a news release to tell the complete cold/PICOVIR story at ICAAC.
Second, to provide media with a solution to the problem unveiled in the survey, we forged a relationship with the University of Virginia, where the lead investigator for PICOVIR, Fred Hayden, MD, conducted the pivotal clinical studies.  Together, we developed a news release highlighting the positive PICOVIR Phase III study results being presented at ICAAC.
Third, we developed an ambitious media relations strategy focused on securing an exclusive in 
USA Today, followed by feature stories by the Associated Press and on the national NBC television network.  With these three outlets eager to break the news about PICOVIR, we set the stage for an all-out media blitz among other national news wires, newspapers and television networks.  We worked closely with our contacts at these outlets for months leading up to the ICAAC meeting, facilitating interviews, providing materials and news story angles, and securing commitment for feature stories. 
The PICOVIR media relations campaign kicked into high gear as our team headed to Chicago to support the PICOVIR data presentation and news conference, and the unveiling of the consumer survey results.  We spent each day tracking down reporters to encourage their attendance at the presentations.  We also provided them with the USA Today feature piece that ran the morning of the presentations to spur pick-up of the exciting story.  We arranged interviews, distributed press kits and were met with much enthusiasm.
In order to saturate the marketplace, we also conducted a satellite media tour “live from the ICAAC meeting” featuring Gary Kay, PhD, and Harley Rotbart, MD, a leading physician in the infectious disease field, discussing the burden of the cold, the OTC survey results and PICOVIR as a potential solution.  With many people still hesitant to fly as a result of the September 11th attacks, media turnout at ICAAC was lower than usual, so we also had a team at our home office reaching out via phone, fax, email and courier service to reporters not in attendance at the meeting but eager for the “scoop” on PICOVIR.
PICOVIR was inarguably the top news story coming out of the ICAAC 2001 meeting.  As planned, our story ran in USA Today the morning of the data presentation, building a fever of media excitement for the potential new cold treatment.  From there, media coverage took off, with the Phase III results and OTC survey results receiving coverage in the Associated Press, Dow Jones, Bloomberg and Knight Ridder wire stories, feature stories or wire pick-up in top newspapers; highlights included The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, LA Times, Seattle Times, Arizona Republic, Miami Herald and Houston Chronicle, to name a few.  Broadcast coverage included “NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw,” as well as “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings,” “Good Morning America” and “The Today Show,” along with approximately 600 additional television and radio hits.  Consumer coverage highlights included a news brief in Time magazine and an upcoming story slated for publication in Reader’s Digest.  Several long-lead medical trade articles also are anticipated.  Internet coverage included WebMD, MSNBC, and NY  Media coverage was also robust among business outlets, including Bloomberg and Dow Jones wire services, and coverage on CNN and MSNBC.  The media coverage was overwhelmingly positive and incorporated all of our key messages and was topped off by a hit on “The Tonight Show” where Jay Leno actually took the stage with a gigantic hand-made bottle of pleconaril!
In conclusion, the PICOVIR media campaign demonstrated innovation, integrity and effectiveness because we rose above the challenges facing us with world events and pre-conceived notions about the disease and product, and blanketed the news around the country with accurate, valuable health care information.  In doing so, we delivered measurable results to our clients and built the foundation for the anticipated FDA approval of the first-ever cold treatment and the future launch of PICOVIR.