Advice for Obama’s FDA Commissioner – Part 1

As previously mentioned, there should be less concern about who the next FDA Commissioner is rather than the qualities and skills he or she can bring to the table.  That includes vision, but it is also vital that the next Commissioner be a consummate communicator.  Vision and planning, without the ability to reach the public and policymakers effectively, is a losing campaign.  And what the FDA needs is both vision and a communications plan.

The recent example of the Obama campaign's communication skills is one for all people in public affairs.  In the digital sense, the campaign not only had breadth, it had depth.  They had a few basic simple messages (I'm going to cut taxes for 95% of Americans) that were sent out through Facebook(100,000,000 people and over 1,000,000 of them following Obama) to Twitter (the campaign had 136,000 followers).  The campaign also used email alerts and text message alerts.

But the campaign isn't the only one to use Twitter to inform the public.  Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has used Twitter effectively during the California fires to note where the fire direction is spreading and updates on the situation.  The Clerk of the House is now twittering updates as to what happens on the floor of the House and on on-going legislative movements with the Senate.  NASA gives updates on launches on Twitter. 

Mainstream newspapers are also on Twitter.  The New York Times Twitters by section (Business, Health, Science), so does the BBC, the Washington Post and magazines like Scientific American.  Television news is twittering, not so much as to deliver news but to find out what is going on – two channels follow Eye on FDA Tweets.

Twitter is something a lot of people don't know about but is gaining in notoriety and in sophistication of the instrument.  It offers a 140 character chance to talk to the world.  When you do, people begin to follow what you have to say and if it is interesting, they pass it along.  In a crisis situation, it is absolutely essential to monitor Twitter to see what people are saying about your situation.  For some, the names of digital means cause them to not take the medium seriously.  The terms sound silly – Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Avatar, Hivemind… well, there was a time when Google sounded silly too.  Then it got to be $500 a share and the brand went from being a noun to a verb – "I'm going to "Google" someone" – and it became synonymous with "search".  Don't make the mistake of underestimating or not understanding the digital revolution that is occurring.  As the Obama campaign demonstrated, you cannot win any public affairs campaign without it.

So my point is this.  The Obama FDA Commissioner has to be a savvy communicator from the substantive point of view, but also has to understand the communications revolution that has occurred and needs to hook in.  MedWatch Alerts, for example, ought to be going out on Twitter.  The MedWatch vids that the agency posts on its sporadic YouTube channel need to go on the front page of the Web site immediately, not later.  Dear Doctor Letters should also go out on Twitter.  Speed is of the essence when it comes to these announcements.  Speed can literally be lifesaving, but also Twitter allows the viral spread of news very quickly.  A recent search of the term "food safety on Twitter, revealed almost 200 sites Twittering on that topic.  If Dr. David Acheson were Twittering updates on various aspects of food safety regularly, it would be picked up by these sources and re-Tweeted to their constituency.  If each of those Food Safety Twitterers had only 100 followers, that means that the message could potentially be re-Tweeted to 20,000 people – people who have a pre-disposed interest in the content of the communication.  You get the point.

Dr. von Eschenbach has made an anemic attempt at communication in the digital space with a weekly message on the FDA Web site posted late on Friday (the worst possible news cycle time) called Andy's Take.  Without analytics, the traffic cannot be gauged, but a large readership is doubtful.  It seems he has gotten weary of it and now has "guests" who do some of the writing. 

So point one for Obama's FDA Commissioner.  Be a good communicator and understand where communications is going.  You're going to need it. 

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