Thursday, April 21, 2016

Theranos: PR Amateurs at the Lab

Crisis interviews are tough. A successful one requires two things: First, that the messaging is on target. Second is that the person delivering the message does it well. Medical testing start-up Theranos and its billionare CEO failed at both this week on The Today Show. The company is fighting serious allegations of lab deficiencies that the government says "pose an immediate risk to patient safety." The government has also proposed banning company CEO Elizabeth Holmes from the industry for two years.

Bad Messaging about Bad Medicine

The way to get on top of a crisis is to take action to solve the problem. Instead, CEO Holmes talked about herself and how she feels about the deficiencies found at the lab. She said she was devastated, but she didn't look devastated. People believe what they see over what they hear. What they saw was someone who didn't like that she had to admit a mistake. It's hard to do those interviews after so many in the media have written and broadcast worshipful stories of the "youngest female, self-made billionaire in the world."

Just because they say you're the next Steve Jobs, doesn't make it true. 

Except this interview isn't about her. It's about the people that may have received faulty test results from a Theranos lab. The government claims the company used shoddy processes, hired unlicensed staff, and ignored its own quality control procedures. If those allegations are true, people could have died because of the deficiencies. Theranos says it doesn't believe any patient was harmed by problems at its labs.

Why wear a lab coat?
Here are a few things I noticed watching the interview. 

  • Holmes says, "We've taken the approach of saying 'let's rebuild this entire laboratory from scratch so that we can ensure this never happens again'." The only concrete action in that sentence comes from the verb "saying." They are talking about rebuilding the lab from the ground up. That's not really helpful.
  • When Homes says that, "I'm the founder and CEO of this company, anything that happens in this company is my responsibility at the end of the day." While saying that sentence, she shakes her head from side to side as if to say, "not really." Also, she's taking non-specific responsibility, which isn't confidence inspiring. I don't get the sense she was hands on in the lab while these things were going on.
  • Not once does she say anything to any of the people who may have gotten inaccurate test results. Taking responsibility is one thing. Apologizing is another. She didn't do that, either. 
  • Putting a college dropout in a white lab coat is as insipid as it is insulting. She's not a doctor nor is she a clinician in any sense of the word. Lack of authenticity will get you every time. Her PR people should know this. 
What can you take away from this interview? 
  • A serious operational issue requires focus on the people impacted by it and your plans to fix the problem. How you feel about the issue is secondary. 
  • An interview of this magnitude requires more practice and preparation than it appears Ms. Homes did here. If she was media trained, she doesn't appear to have watched herself at any point in the process. You can't media train people without that step. 
  • Don't undervalue communication. If you're not so good at communicating, people believe you're not so good at your day job. You don't have to be perfect, but you have to be better than Ms. Holmes. Doing well in a media interview is a learned skill. Take the time it requires to be good at it.
  • When the CEO = the Company it's awfully hard to separate them when something has gone wrong. Manage your CEOs media interactions carefully. 
Theranos and its CEO crafted a fantastic origin story about a plucky young who woman drops out of college to pursue her revolutionary dream. She invents a really cool device that will simultaneously change the world and make her rich and powerful. Except the government hasn't approved the device for use and Theranos outsources a lot of its tests to other labs, losing money in the process. Not really revolutionary. The government has now launched a criminal investigation into the company's practices. 

This reality isn't likely to get Ms. Holmes many more magazine covers, but it might just get her indicted.

If the Theranos lab procedures are as lousy as its PR counsel, reality is likely to win.  

Bill Salvin


  1. Interesting perspective. I watched it twice, a little more concerned with what's going on with Maria Shriver than I should have been, and was taken with the CEO's the buck stops here, what happens here is my responsibility, I'm surprised to learn we hadn't addressed these things. CMS is tough, some of the language they use in letters is incendiary, but all in all, no lives were lost, deficiencies were addressed and the company is eager to work with CMS to get back on track. My big thing for CEO, going forward, would be posture and tone. Good guys wear white and they sit with welcoming posture delivering a message with a degree of emotion.

  2. Thanks for reading, Nik. My issue with her taking responsibility is that it was a blanket statement that had no specifics connected to it. Had she done so, that would have given me confidence that she not only understood the problems for which she claimed responsibility, but that she was capable of solving them. I agree with you about posture and tone. People respond to emotion and you're right on with that observation. Thanks again for reading.