Physicians aren’t the only ones getting paid to attend industry-sponsored events heavy on product discussions. For $250, “select” journalists can discuss facial aesthetics at an event sponsored by Botox-maker Allergan, on June 9 in New York City. Journalistic ethics can be checked at the door.
The emailed invitation to attend Allergan’s Facial Aesthetics Advisory Panel, which was reproduced, criticized, and circulated on the Association of Healthcare Journalists’ listserv, said the panel’s goal is to “engage in a discussion about current facial aesthetics, trends and innovations, perceived gaps in data, and any questions, concerns or misperceptions your readers may have about products and treatments.” Allergan makes Botox Cosmetic, Juvederm (a dermal filler) and Latisse, an eyelash enhancer.
Reporters agreeing to attend the two-hour event and sit on the panel stand to earn the equivalent of $125 an hour. “As a seasoned reporter in this space, we would greatly value your feedback, and we’d like to offer you a stipend of $250 for your attendance and insights,” the invitation states.
Elizabeth Fishman, associate dean for communications at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, said in an email that she had “never heard of reporters being offered ‘stipends’ for their ‘attendance and insights’ about a company or product that they cover.” Fishman added that in 10 years at CBS News, she was never offered financial compensation by a third party in exchange for editorial coverage. “To accept any such compensation would be breaking a fundamental CBS News standard, and I am quite sure, would break standards at other news organizations as well,” she said.
The Allergan stipend doesn’t obligate reporters to write about Allergan or its products, and while providing a stipend and free lunch to journalists, in exchange for their attendance at an event featuring discussions about products they potentially cover, is ethically dubious, it’s not illegal. However, companies hoping to gain the trust of patients and other stakeholders, or hoping to simply avoid negative reputational spillover, will want to avoid the kind of public relations exposure that casts them in the role of media briber. Blaming a third party for mistakes doesn’t amount to an abdication of responsibility.
According to a Q1 release, Allergan’s facial aesthetics portfolio, combined with its breast aesthetics products, accounted for 29% of the company’s $4.8 billion in revenues for 2010. Botox, which is indicated for cosmetic and non-cosmetic uses including chronic migraine, upper limb spasticity, cervical dystonia and other indications, represented 30% of Allergan’s revenues in 2010, according to company data.