Margaret Chan (in response to reporters questions about starvation in North Korea)
…one thing I recognized is that walking is quite well observed in that country, and I suggest that is why I didn’t see many obese people.
What an outrageous statement. And yet… where is the outrage?
The news media have covered the WHO attacks on Amnesty International, but none that I’ve seen express outrage at Director-General Chan’s comments. One possible explanation is that the experts at outrage management have been plying their craft.
Drs. Peter Sandman (a psychologist) and Jody Lanard (a psychiatrist) are a husband and wife press relations team that specialises in neutralising activists. I first wrote about them with respect to pandemic flu preparedness back in February 2007: The Sandman/Lanard Approach to PR Spin. Their PR spin starts with how they present themselves, not as simple PR agents, but as “risk communicators”. This confuses some people into thinking that they are academics or perhaps humanitarians. In fact, they are very highly paid by some of the biggest multinationals and organisations in the world to do damage control when the public is mad at them. Peter Sandman got his start working for Union Carbide to lessen the outrage over the Bhopal disaster. More recently, he worked for BP.
In addition to their work with large corporations, they also work for large organisations and even for countries. Both Drs. Sandman and Lanard have worked for the WHO on numerous occasions. They have described their work for the WHO as “risk communication” which appears to consist of passing on long-winded bromides that can be had for free at their website. One wonders why companies and large organsiations like the WHO would pay large sums of money for the same word soup, over and over again. [You can read a recent example of it here.] One possibility is that this is not what is being paid for. That, instead, Sandman and Lanard are paid to persuade both the mainstream media and the blogosphere not to say bad things about their clients. Saying that you are paid to give mundane advice about risk communication to decision makers sounds better than saying you are paid to manipulate the media, I suppose.
In a recent self-published article on their website, Drs. Sandman and Lanard reveal some, but not all of their conflicts of interest. For example, we are told that Jody Lanard was paid “as senior WHO advisor for pandemic influenza risk communication” in 2005. We are not told that she worked with Margaret Chan. However, given that Margaret Chan had just been named to the newly created position of Representative of the Director-General for Pandemic Influenza at the WHO in 2005, it seems likely that the two interacted quite closely.
What Dr. Jody Lanard does not disclose is her very active participation on blogs and forums which involve activists related to the very issues she has been paid to advise on. I have personal knowledge of her modus operandi with respect to flu blogs and forums. On very rare occasions, she will comment using her real name. However, the vast majority of her participation on flu forums is through the use of pseudonyms. I have no objection to pseudonyms, I use one myself. However, I believe it is unethical to fail to disclose conflicts of interests, even if you are using a pseudonym. It is also unethical to use multiple identities, “sock puppets”, on the same forum. Dr. Lanard has violated these ethical norms, frequently. She has used a wide variety of pseudonyms with strikingly different personas. One of these is a thinly veiled version of her “real” self. This persona seems intended to come across as a “I’m frustrated I can’t do more for the cause under my own name” type. Regular participants in “Flublogia” are supposed to know that this is her. However, some of her other personas are less savory. These can be intensely sarcastic, obscene and hostile.
I am one of the Moderators of PFI_Forum. Dr. Lanard has posted on this forum as herself on a few occasions, but mostly under one of her many sock puppets. The use of sock puppets is a banable offense on most Forums. I have not banned her despite knowing about the sock puppets because I wanted to understand how she operated on other forums. To make a long story short, Dr. Lanard has been working the flu boards on behalf of Margaret Chan since at least 2005. She may say that she is doing this because she thinks the Director-General is a wonderful person. However, we also know that she was paid to “help” the WHO on many occasions. We cannot know what is her mind. We do know that Margaret Chan has a highly paid PR representative who has sought to influence the blogosphere on her behalf.
The relationship between Drs. Sandman and Lanard and the media is murky. They occasionally give interviews to well-known reporters. One wonders if they attempt to work the mainstream media the same way Dr. Lanard works the blogosphere. Have reporters received private messages “explaining” what Margaret Chan “really meant” in her comments about North Korea from intermediaries?
One of the most important media sources for information on public health comes from the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy (CIDRAP). Lisa Schnirring and Robert Roos do an excellent job of reporting on a wide range of public health stories, some of which necessarily involve the WHO. Yet, strangely, they seem to have completely missed the Margaret Chan versus Amnesty International story. How is this possible? Well, this could be a coincidence, but Dr. Sandman has listed himself as affiliated with CIDRAP. However, his name is not listed at the CIDRAP about us page. He is, however, listed as Deputy Editor of CIDRAP Business Source. Although CIDRAP is free, CIDRAP Business Source costs $897.00 for an annual subscription. An Enterprise subscription costs $8,970.00.
Not to be crass, but how much money does Dr. Osterholm make as a result of his association with Dr. Sandman? What, exactly, did Dr. Sandman bring to CIDRAP Business Source? Was it the same word soup that he always offers and can be had free at his website? Or was a it a rolodex filled with the names of wealthy clients eager to pay Dr. Osterholm large consulting fees? Did they really want his advice on how many cans of tuna to store under their beds? Or did they want his loyalty when their interests were threatened? I would suggest that CIDRAP Business Source represents a major conflict of interest for Dr. Osterholm. One that he does not always disclose in his media interviews. I suspect that many reporters look to Dr. Osterholm for help interpreting stories like Margaret Chan’s comments on North Korea. I would suggest that if they want unbiased advice, they should look elsewhere.
In their rambling and incomplete “disclosure” narrative, Drs. Sandman and Lanard indicate that they have been paid by governments and have extensive ties with their officials.