Know Your Audience: What Chimerix Could Have Done Differently with Media Relations

by David D. Menzies
An example of a challenging media relations situation is still playing out here in the Research Triangle region of North Carolina, specifically Durham, as a local drug company -- Chimerix -- deals with fallout from high-profile coverage of a tragic situation involving a sick child. For those unfamiliar with the story, Chimerix is developing antiviral medicines for the treatment of life-threatening diseases. The family of an ill child petitioned Chimerix for use of a drug they are developing that is in the trial stage and has not been approved by the FDA. Due to several reasons, Chimerix declined to allow the family access to the drug, and the family went on the attack in the media to force Chimerix's hand. A plethora of negative press followed, with the CEO of Chimerix being quoted directly and indirectly nationally and regionally, including this from the Raleigh News & Observer: "He told journalists Monday that he would refuse to provide the drug to Josh even if he visited the child at his bedside and saw his deteriorating physical condition."

The long and short of it is Chimerix, despite whatever their intentions might have been, came off sounding like an impersonal, cold and calculating corporation refusing to help a very ill little boy. They eventually changed course and announced they would indeed help the child, but much damage was already done to their brand. This is a tragic situation affecting real lives, both in terms of the ill child and the people working at Chimerix to make drugs that will help people. With that in mind, this situation does serve as an effective media relations case study as Chimerix could have avoided much -- if not all -- of the negative reporting by taking the simple step of considering their audience before talking to reporters and tailoring their responses to that audience.

There are many things Chimerix could have (and perhaps should have) done differently with their media relations efforts, but first and foremost they needed to have a better understanding of who their audience was. To determine that, they needed to understand what type of story was actually unfolding before them.

It is true that Chimerix is a corporation, with investors, employees, and many other stakeholders dependent upon its success as a business. But its products are all about people. The media firestorm surrounding this situation was not sparked by some type of stock analysis or business announcement; it came about because some people -- namely, the sick child's family -- were crying out for help, turning this immediately into a human interest story. Judging by the information attributed to Chimerix in multiple articles and television stories, it sounded to me like the company did not realize what type of story they were dealing with. There was a bunch of businessy, corporate-sounding information about clinical trials, placebos, the FDA, and the process involved with getting a drug developed. The news outlets covering the story were mainstream operations, not business-specific, meaning that hundreds of thousands of readers and viewers were seeing this story play out through their prisms which were, again, not business-specific.

Had Chimerix understood this was a human interest story, they could have decided to approach it as such and tailored their strategic messaging to a non-business audience. Statements such as, "We're developing antiviral medicines to help people" or "Our number one priority is to help people" or "Helping people get better is what we do" would have connected with the audience for this particular story and helped to explain what the company actually does in the context of the storyline of a dying boy's family trying to save his life.

Other talking points could have been developed quite easily to showcase the fact that the company was proactively trying to find a solution to this situation rather than acting as a stumbling block to the boy's recovery. "Our team is working tirelessly to find a solution to this situation" or "We're trying to figure out a way to reach a positive outcome" are concise, simple statements that apply to this situation but, alas, are nowhere to be found in any of the news articles I saw. For an audience demanding something be done, showing that Chimerix was indeed trying to figure something out would have been a major plus for the company.

Finally, Chimerix could have connected directly with their audience by understanding that since the focal point of the story was a boy and his family fighting for his survival, that would tap the emotions of a great deal of the audience who are parents or have families. With statements like, "We at Chimerix have children, brothers, and sisters too and understand the family's grief" or "We want to do what's best for this child and all children, even ours" the company would have been able to tap into the emotions of the audience and put themselves on the same level, breaking down the "cold, calculating corporation" moniker.

Without knowing the inner-workings of Chimerix's PR efforts before and during this situation, it's tough to tell what type of support and advice was provided to the company's CEO as he went before the media. Ideally, he should have been given a decent amount of media training and armed with audience-specific strategic messaging to provide helpful answers to reporters' questions while representing Chimerix in a positive light. Despite the negative press, Chimerix nonetheless has an opportunity now to engage in proactive reputation management to minimize the damage to their brand and move forward with positive publicity to help grow their company and, in turn, continue to develop new drugs to help people. It will be fascinating to watch what the company does in the days and weeks ahead.

Other business owners and C-level executives watching this play out should take heed, and adjust their approach to media relations appropriately.

David D. Menzies is president of Innovative Public Relations, a PR and media relations consultancy. He is a 22+ year public relations professional with expertise in strategic messaging, publicity and branding. For more information visit www.innovativepublicrelations.com. Copyright © 2014 Innovative Public Relations, Inc. Publicity and branding solutions from Innovative Public Relations help U.S. and international life sciences and technology companies get in front of prospective customers and cement their brands in the marketplace. Click here to learn more about our signature Proposal => Engagement => Success model.