Getting Juiced – the FDA, Apple Juice and Arsenic

There has been a rather high profile spat between one man and a federal agency over the effects of arsenic in apple juice.  The man happens to be Dr. Oz – a household name, the agency happens to be the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – also a household name.

If you have not seen the coverage, it amounts to this.  The Dr. Oz website published an article that provided an overview of the arsenic levels contained in apple juice based on samples.  The FDA responded on its own Consumer Update page entitled “Apple Juice is Safe to Drink“.  The Dr. Oz site also posted a Q&A that specifically addresses some of the FDA positions.  The FDA sent not one, but two letters to producers of the Dr. Oz Show, according to media reports.

Apple juice aside, there may be some communications lessons here for FDA.  Earlier in the month, Eye on FDA overviewed what the FDA was doing in social media – the agency has built platforms in Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. But a lesson for everyone here is that social media platforms are not enough when you need strategy as well.

According to Compete.com, the ranking of the FDA’s Web site is 2570 with 805,000 unique visitors each month.  Dr. Oz, however, has a ranking of 1675 and over 1,223,000 unique visitors each month. It is also worth noting that the Dr. Oz site has a Facebook “Like” widget that allows you to express your agreement with the article.  The Dr. Oz article on the arsenic had Priligy over 10,000 Likes, and the Q&A over 11,000.  The FDA Consumer Update doesn’t have a Facebook connection.  There is a Share function on the FDA site, but no way to see how many people did so – and it is one click away, not immediate.

But what Dr. Oz really has that FDA does not have is persona.  And, of course, FDA also does not have its own show.

FDA makes every effort to appear to be a professional organization that is dedicated to science and to protecting the public health.  If you look at the agency’s YouTube channel, you won’t find anything that doesn’t sound like an official agency talking officially.  There is no persona.

But that isn’t true for CDC, another agency focused on protecting the health of the public. In case you missed it, the CDC recently posted an effort to increase the need to educate the public about Preparedness 101 – The Zombie Apocalypse.  This got a lot of attention on YouTube alone.

Of course a federal agency cannot be a celebrity persona.  But might be a good idea for the FDA to consider (1) better share functions for its material that are instant rather than one-click away; and (2) softening the edges of its communications to make them more consumer friendly and identifiable because to relate to the public and to convey a point of view, it might be better to communicate with people in ways they would like to hear the information over the way that the agency might like to say it.

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