PR lessons from the Theranos debacle: defend the science

by | Dec 3, 2015 | News, Popculture, Public Relations

Up until very recently, hardly anyone outside the health and pharmaceuticals industry had ever heard of Theranos.

But that changed the morning of October 15, when The Wall Street Journal published an absolutely scathing exposé on the Silicon Valley startup.

The medical-technology company has steadily grown since its founding in 2003, setting itself apart by claiming to be able to perform scores of lab tests with just a few drops of drawn blood (rather than the large vials traditionally needed). But in its article, WSJ alleged that Theranos has been misrepresenting itself by “overstating its technology’s reach and reliability.

Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes appeared on CNBC’s Mad Money that night to defend her company, calling the allegations “disappointing to see”, and claiming to be “shocked that the Journal would publish something like this when we had sent them over 1,000 pages of documentation demonstrating that the statements in their piece were false.”

But the negative press kept coming. The very next day, WSJ again took aim at Theranos, reporting the firm was having issues with the Food and Drug Administration over its use of “nanotainers” in testing, which the FDA considers an unapproved medical device.

Within two weeks, fresh allegations against the company had been fired from all angles:

articlesCoverage was not only severe in its assessment of Theranos, but wildly extensive: in the six weeks prior to the original WSJ article, MediaMiser software calculated fewer than 900 online articles making mention of the startup; in the six weeks after, that number rocketed to approximately 5,000.

Throughout the debacle Holmes has been front and centre, not shying away from the assault. And while some PR professionals have interpreted this as a display of strength, Janet Vasquez thinks “it hasn’t been enough”.

Ms. Vasquez ━ founder of JV Public Relations NY, a firm specializing in healthcare initiatives and campaigns ━ sees Holmes’s handling of the Theranos board, for instance, as one area in which she could have done more.

Instead of reducing the governing board’s medical knowledge quotient, Ms. Vasquez argues Holmes should have done the opposite: “When she was taking those punches, I think it was time to break out someone with that medical expertise to break everything down for the public.”

vasquezMs. Vasquez points out that the main value behind companies such as Theranos lies in the science behind them. When that’s attacked, it must be protected. And by not producing a respected medical ally with the right credentials to defend Theranos and its science ━ and instead having Holmes’s lack of any kind of medical degree shining brightly under the spotlight ━ the CEO committed a significant PR faux pas.

According to Ms. Vasquez, “Theranos failed in effectively defending its science.”

Theranos is still standing ━ on top of a tidy little $9-billion valuation, no less ━ but the slings and arrows keep coming: The Washington Post published an article on December 2 alleging that concerns over Theranos’s FDA compliance date back to 2012 at least.

Until and if this storm blows over, it’s clear that Theranos could desperately use some PR magic ━ and maybe even some regular magic, too ━ to carry it through.

Marcus Kaulback
Marcus is a content creator and marketer with a focus on branding and communications.