When Transparency Becomes a Blunt Instrument

Publicist and NYU business school adjunct professor Paul Osterreicher had a very interesting analysis of FDA's communications and public relations crisis in PR Week.   So why should I care about FDA's problems, you ask? Because some of them are pharma's problems too... and, in fact, they're shared by any company or individual who deals with complex, "sound-bite-defying" issues that are publicized, in real time, via media and Web 2.0 tools.

Below, a brief excerpt with some key points:

1. FDA [I'm adding the word "Pharma "paranthetically] has lost control of its message. Regaining its public relations footing is possible but it is in a tough spot: dealing with hugely complex issues that can defy the sound bite, being overseen [affected] by elected officials eager to score political points... 

2. Transpareancy is absolutely crucial, [but]it cannot be used as a blunt instrument. There really are secrets that must be kept, at least for some period of time. Premature release of information can create a panic among patients in the case of drugs and devices, or among the entire public in the case of food. There may be patent issues, law suits, or patient information that demand confidentiality.

3.  Just how much secrecy should we expect these days? Our interest in inclusion means that more people are exposed to secrets. More people mean more mouths. And with people involved in social issues in addition to work, they often feel forced to choose sides.

The push toward more secret sharing is bound to accelerate. We have a generation growing up on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, and all the other generations are aching to catch up. The amount of personal information people are willing to share is stunning. Clearly, the need to unleash our inner narcissist has overpowered our interest in keeping information private. A secret isn't what it used to be.

As Osterreicher points out, the Agency's attempts to help the situation by hiring a PR consultant only backfired.

He also quotes Frank Torti's farewell letter to FDA staff, in which Torti decries the fact that what's written about FDA is always "from the outside."  "I wish there was a way we could communicate what we've done, sometimes under very difficult circumstances."

In a way, FDA did that by inviting journalists to a forum late last year, in which experts from within the Agency discussed some of what they've done....the scientist who connected the dots in the melamine poisoning case, for example,or the CDER team that galvanized forces to determine the nature of heparin contamination.  

Unfortunately, apart from what was reported in science and trade magazines, not much got out to the mainstream press about that event. I hope that the Agency's aggressive enforcement agenda doesn't keep it from giving some of its more talented and altruistic staff the public recognition they deserve (and making the public care much more about programs like Critical Path). They won't care if they don't know what's going on, and, yes, they are smart enough to understand the basic concepts.

The same holds for pharma companies----why not talk more about the work that scientists and researchers (and, yes, MANUFACTURING teams) are doing?  (And much less about  their CEOs and sales and marketing teams)

To read the entire op ed, "The Secrecy Bucket is Full of Holes, Get Used to It," click here.