Dr. von Eschenbach has been in charge of the FDA since late last year when he was confirmed. This year – 2007 – he has given but one speech on the FDA called the State of the FDA Address.
In an agency so beset by problems and so in need of a re-make that Congress has charged ahead with reforms, there has been no speech from the Commissioner outlining his vision for this agency. What is he thinking? Or, what is he not thinking?
Traditional wisdom would have it that when you have a crisis, you move ahead of it to try and get your input into the public debate over the matter – you want your point of view to be heard. Otherwise, there is a blank slate upon which others can project their image of the agency as it is – that the agency is not keeping up, that meta-analyses answer questions rather than raise them. In the face of silence, opponents and opportunists can paint their image of what the agency should become, rather than your own.
To confront that would mean a series of speeches – not silence. Speeches before influential groups – speeches before key opinion leaders – speeches to help define the agency on your terms, and not let your opponents put their’s out their ahead of your’s.
Perhaps silence is figuring into some grand strategy here, but the evidence does not lend itself to that point of view. Congress has embarked on its own agenda of reform. While the FDA has appeared before Congress, there is no evidence of a wider communications strategy that states what the FDA needs to do and how they need to do it – and most importantly, what matters and what does not.
A basic principle of crisis communications is that when you are called into doubt, you speak to others who will carry your water for you with credibility and sustain it before those making policy. If that is the case here, it has been a particularly stealth strategy – one that has been totally behind the scenes – perhaps too much so.
Or, perhaps the thinking is that silence is golden. But it is the reputation of the FDA that once was golden. Silence, in this case, may only be working the tarnish.