22 Nov 2022

Every PR has had the call: “We’ve got something new, it will make a difference. Help us shout about it?”  It’s the classic brief.


At this point, how many of us interrogate every aspect of the RFP?


Elizabeth Holmes, the former billionaire, and CEO of the now defunct blood-testing company Theranos has been sentenced to more than 11 years in prison after being found guilty of fraud.


I’ve followed the case since 2015 when The Wall Street Journal unpicked Holmes’ claims and questioned Theranos’ blood-testing technology. I’ve absorbed the reporting of the Steve Jobs turtlenecks, and importantly, the impact on the patients who put their trust in Theranos and its founder.


I’ve also read reports recounting the positive media storm that Holmes created and questioning the subsequent responsibility of reporters and their publications in the fraud.


Drawing on this, I’m pondering:


  • Is PR – and the resulting media coverage – complicit in Theranos’ fraud?
  • What are the lessons learned?
  • If I got the call from Holmes, would I have taken on the brief?
  • Who’s culpable?


An expert at leveraging media and her board of advocates, PR was undoubtedly a tool of Holmes’ fraud. As Holmes got her New Yorker profile, investment in Theranos poured in. She offered media access, but refused to describe how her technology worked, citing confidentiality.


The write-ups were exalting – there were Zuckerberg parallels. But with hindsight, the plaudits beg two questions:


Firstly, to what extent did the PRs and media dig into the facts, and secondly, how often does something need to be written, before it becomes truth?


Speaking to a journalist turned comms pro about accountability, he said: “There’s a clear distinction. PR delivers a message. A journalist uncovers the truth – the essence of the job is to fact check. If you get that wrong, it’s a problem. It gets complicated, however, if the PR delivering the message knows the message is false. There’s a moral question there.”


The moral question in this case is compounded because the message focused on the diagnosis of life-threatening illness and encouraged patients to seek – expensive – help from their doctor.


Lessons learned


Complicity is complex but what lessons can we learn?


  • Think like a journalist. Where are the references? Are the spokespeople qualified? If you can’t back something up, don’t say it.


  • Don’t follow the herd. Just because something has a positive write-up, doesn’t make it fact.


  • Accept mistakes. When someone falls foul of expectations we say: own it and apologise. The same is applied here. If billionaire investors, Stanford professors and the New Yorker can be deceived, anyone can be.


So, would I have taken the brief? Holmes’ female, biotech visionary story is one we want to tell. Would I have been duped. Who knows? Would I have raised concerns when the claims unravelled? Absolutely.


Holmes is on the receiving end of a lengthy prison sentence. Let’s hope the lessons learned last even longer.


This article was first published on PRWeek on 22.11.22