Friday before last, I met with Scott Elster, CEO of Prolacta, and Susan Neumann, Prolacta VP of Milk Procurement (now there’s a job title for a resume), ostensibly to talk about how Prolacta can improve their transparency. For some background, here is the article I wrote originally that kicked this whole thing off: Prolacta, For-Profit Milk Banks, and Predatory PR Tactics.
Scott, Susan, and I met up at the local Cheesecake Factory restaurant to chat. Full disclosure: I had water. With lemon. I was hoping to talk to them about ways they could become more transparent. I published those points on Friday, although, reviewing that post, it looks like I made a royal screw-up with my post scheduling and the post was set to private for some reason. Friday was definitely not a day that was full of awesome. So in case you aren’t an email subscriber and in case you got the link and you were blocked from reading it, here is that post: Meeting with Prolacta Executives Happening Right Now!
Here are the points I wanted to discuss with them:
Choosing a name other than “milk bank” for your milk collection agencies is absolutely necessary. These are collection agencies and referring to them as banks is confusing and misleading. Banks retain milk, process it, store it, and ultimately distribute it. These agencies simply collect the milk and pass it along to you.
Find a new way to refer to milk given to your company. “Donations” are something given to a non-profit, not a business. Using the language of charity confuses people.
State very clearly on the front page of each and every collection agency website that you are a for-profit company, not a non-profit milk bank. This should be found on the front page and in the pages describing what happens to the milk once it is shipped out. As an alternative, eliminate the middle-man milk collection agencies and collect milk under your own name.
Create a concrete set of communication guidelines to ensure that all employees and contractors know how to engage with the public in an open and transparent way. Ensure that this is communicated cross-functionally, including (and especially) to third party public relations firms and to your milk collection agencies.
Make it very clear on your website and on your milk collection agencies’ websites that you have a partnership with Abbott. This should also appear both on the front page and continue to appear in the FAQ and on the front pages and FAQs of your associated milk collection agencies.
Increase transparency surrounding your Ready to Feed line of products and ensure your FAQ and associated information pages has complete information on this, particularly with regard to the competition with HMBANA banks section.
Scott is very good at managing a conversation, though, and steer it in the direction he wants it to go. He’s a successful CEO after all. He’s used to being in control of things. Mostly, we talked about how much Prolacta cares about NICU premies, how special their needs are, and how awesome Prolacta’s products are. And I am sure they are great products.
That’s not the point. The point was to talk to Prolacta about improving transparency.
And we did. Here is what Scott and Susan had to say about the points I made:
Choosing a name other than “milk bank” for your milk collection agencies is absolutely necessary.
They quibbled quite a bit over this. It is plain that they did not see how this is confusing, despite the fact that many mothers are misled by this. Scott and Susan did not express any intent to change this.
Find a new way to refer to milk given to your company.
Again, more quibbling. ”Well, what are we supposed to call it?” Honestly? I don’t have a marketing degree, but surely there is another word they can use here. Why not just call it pumped milk? Let’s try it in their FAQ. Here’s a screen shot of the Milkin’ Mamas FAQ (Helping Hands appears to be down):
The FAQ from Milkin’ Mamas
Why couldn’t it instead read:
- Who can provide milk for Milkin’ Mamas?
- How do I know if I am a candidate to provide milk for Milkin’ Mamas?
- Who receives my pumped milk?
- After lactation begins, how long can a nursing mother provide pumped milk to Milkin’ Mamas?
- Can I smoke while pumping milk for Milkin’ Mamas?
- Will I be paid for my pumped milk?
You get the idea. Not that hard, right? And removing the word “donation” certainly is more accurate and less confusing and misleading. To be fair to Scott and Susan, I had thought long and hard about how to change this language and was having trouble finding the words. I did not suggest simply calling it pumped milk during our meeting. Like many things, this idea struck me like a bolt of lightning after the fact. I emailed both Scott and Susan after our meeting with the suggestion and I hope they take it to heart. Of course, this change would need to take place in all areas of their affiliated websites (not just the FAQs) in order to be effective. I have not heard back from Scott and Susan to know if they are willing to entertain this idea.
State very clearly on the front page of each and every collection agency website that you are a for-profit company.
Scott and Susan both seemed to believe that they are making this information clear already. Susan brought me a printout from the Helping Hands front page to illustrate this. Unfortunately, the printout was not of sufficient quality to see the small, faint message that said something along the lines of “a division of Prolacta Biosciences” and because the Helping Hands website is down currently, I can’t independently verify this. None of my previous screenshots capture this portion of the website.
I do know that the Milkin’ Mamas website does not have this in their header, nor do they have a Prolacta Biosciences tab (the Prolacta logo is at the bottom of the page):
No mention of Prolacta on this header
Prolacta, simply put, is unique. It holds a very unusual place in that it is, to my knowledge, the only for-profit company that deals with human milk. Of course we wouldn’t ask Pampers to publish their for-profit status on their website because every other diaper manufacturer in the country is for-profit. We assume that a diaper company is for profit. Human milk banking is the opposite. Every other bank in the country (if not the world) is non-profit, so it is fair to assume that if you are dealing with someone collecting milk for babies, that it would be non-profit. This is why it is critical that Prolacta identify clearly that it is a corporation and not a non-profit company.
When I brought up the concerns over the language in the “Understand Where Your Milk Goes…” infographic, Scott did comit to changing the language on there to say that the Human Milk Fortifier is sold to hospitals, although, he said, this would take some time to roll out and would not be an instant change. I get it. I work in corporate America. These things aren’t instantaneous. This is a step in the right direction.
Create a concrete set of communication guidelines to ensure that all employees and contractors know how to engage with the public in an open and transparent way.
There wasn’t much contention on this issue. I hope that their agreement on this point means that they will ensure that all employees, contractors, and 3rd parties know how to engage appropriately with the public. I was not able to convince Susan to share with me their internal communication guidelines for publication on my blog. This may be because they do not exist, and I hope that if this is the case they will take this opportunity to create communication guidelines. Every company, not just Prolacta, should ensure that its people know how to engage with the public in an appropriate way.
Make it very clear on your website and on your milk collection agencies’ websites that you have a partnership with Abbott.
When I brought up the concerns with Abbot and their longstanding status as WHO Code violators, Scott made it clear that he could not discuss this with me. He was able to talk about the Prolacta relationship with Abbot, but he did not address my concerns about his choice to partner with a company who shows through its actions that it seeks to directly undermine the breastfeeding relationships of mothers and babies though its marketing practices.
Increase transparency surrounding your Ready to Feed line of products.
In addition to its Human Milk Fortifier, Prolacta markets a line of products called its Ready to Feed line. At this time, there is only one product offered under this product line: Standardized Human Milk or PremieLact.
Prolacta’s Standardized Human Milk, aka PremieLact
From my conversation with Scott, I am under the impression that this is no longer being manufactured or was only manufactured as more of a one-off thing when a hospital needed human milk in a very small bottle size (because decanting a HMBANA bottle is not possible?). Scott explained that the Human Milk Fortifier absolutely cannot be mixed with formula, so there was a need to ensure that hospitals have small quantities of human milk on hand. Having given milk informally to a mom of a micro-premie (now a gorgeous toddler), I know this is a legit need. If babies are born early enough, mom doesn’t always go through the hormone shift that allows her to produce milk. I appreciated Scott clarifying the intent and need behind this product and I think that would be helpful to include in information to pumping moms.
Overall Impressions of the Conversation
First, Scott, and by extension Prolacta, doesn’t seem to think too much about the pumping moms who provide them with milk. That’s not to say that I think they view those moms with contempt or anything like that. It’s just that those moms seem to take up far less space in their sphere of concern that getting their product out to NICU babies. Considering that Prolacta relies solely on pumping moms to stay in business, I find this sad.
Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps Scott wanted to talk more about babies and less about pumping moms because the babies are a major feel-good point for his company and the pumping mom aspect of the business isn’t as comfortable for him because it is an area where his business is vulnerable. Perhaps his focus on NICU premies is because of the passion he gained from his own personal experience. Regardless, I am disappointed that we spent most of the conversation on that portion of the business instead of talking about the pumping moms.
I also got the impression that Scott has a certain amount of contempt for the HMBANA banks. He went on at length about Prolacta’s safety standards and how they set the standard for all milk banks in handling human milk safely. He shared his experience with Baxter and the group of people who caught AIDS from blood transfusions. He talked about diseases, the possibility of moms mixing in cow, coconut, or almond milk with breast milk, moms combining milk with other moms to ship, and so on. These are legitimate concerns, but these are all things, that I am sure HMBANA banks have experience dealing with, especially considering that the San Jose milk bank has been around for more than 30 years It seems like the relatively young Prolacta could stand to take a few notes from them.
Do I think Scott is a big, bad, evil guy? No. He and Susan were both genuinely courteous and friendly to me during our meeting and seemed interested in what I had to say. At the start of the conversation, I shared with Scott and Susan how I felt when I learned that my “donated” milk had gone to a for-profit company. Both Scott and Susan listened carefully to my story, and then Scott said this, “Molly, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I am so relieved to hear that this was your experience in 2008 and not in 2013.” And I understand what he is saying. Prolacta has worked hard to improve its transparency, and I think they’ve learned some hard lessons in the past and I think they have put those lessons to good use. I think the fact that they were willing to drive over an hour to meet with me shows that they are interested in continuing the process of improving transparency, and I hope that their actions following our conversation will show us all that they mean what they say.
I would invite Susan and Scott to comment here on this post and tell us in detail what their actions will be in the days and weeks ahead.