Friday, November 02, 2007

Communications Void at California Stem Cell Agency

During the next few months, the California stem cell agency is embarking on two rounds of grants worth $312 million, with a multimillion dollar public outreach program in the wings -- all of that minus its top communications executive.

Dale Carlson resigned from his post as chief communications officer last month, saying that he wanted to return to the private sector. Carlson joined the agency August 2006 after serving as vice president for corporate affairs with the Pacific (stock) Exchange in San Francisco for 18 years.

Replacing Carlson will be a difficult task. He is a consummate professional, one of the best that we have encountered over decades of experience with practitioners of public relations. He had a keen grasp of the needs of CIRM and the needs of the media and how to achieve a balance that was in the best interest of his employer.

The communications job at CIRM is particularly difficult because it is a unique enterprise with complex responsibilities and tasks. By comparison, most government agencies are straightforward, as are businesses. But CIRM combines both government and business, along with science, politics, morality, ethics, religion and much more. Finding someone who will be knowledgeable and comfortable with the scope of CIRM activities will take considerable work.

Already we have seen some predictable slippage in CIRM's PR functions, relatively minor at this point. But with the $85 million faculty awards due in December and the far-reaching $227 million in lab grants, the need for top notch help looms large.

CIRM is looking for an interim communications person as well as a permanent replacement with a salary range of $130,000 to $195,000. It will certainly need someone on board, whether an outside firm or person, come January when the lab grants are scheduled for approval by the Oversight Committee.

Also coming up in 2008 is a public outreach program, which the strategic plan says could run $4.5 million. Both incoming CIRM President Alan Trounson and interim President Richard Murphy have identified the public education effort as a major priority.

Murphy told CIRM directors last month that the agency is considering hiring an outside firm that would work with "an internal public information coordinator." Murphy said the agency will begin a search for a "firm that is strong in medical affairs and journalism and has good relationships with government."

CIRM is coming out of an unsettled period that was at least a partial result of failure to fill the vacant presidential spot in a prompt fashion. CIRM's chief scientific officer, Arlene Chiu, has left and others as well. It is fair to speculate that absent the disruption Carlson might still be at the agency.

Carlson was the third communications person/firm in the last three years at CIRM, not including a whopping $378,000 contract with the Edelman PR firm. That track record reflects poorly on the agency. We suspect it is partially linked to micromanagement problems. It also may have to do with internal access issues. If the new communications chief is to serve CIRM well, he or she must have complete access at the highest levels of the organization. Otherwise, policies become locked in place without full consideration of all their public ramifications.

Public relations is one of those tasks that seem simple on the surface and consequently sometimes generates poorly informed and self-serving dabbling. The Oversight Committee at one point even engaged in writing PR practices into its grant administration regulations in a way that protected the interests of grant recipients over the agency itself.

CIRM needs to resolve such issues if it is to achieve its public outreach and education goals. Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:27 PM

    FYI - There is an RFP out for PR firms. The below is from


    California's state-backed entity set up to distribute funds for stem cell research has issued a six-figure RFP for state, national and global public information and communications work.

    The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is backed by $3 billion in bonds and distributes funds via an independent citizens' oversight committee, which plans to dole out nearly $300M each year over the next decade.

    The Institute has issued an RFP for a firm to handle its public information needs for the next year with a budget capped at $300K. The work includes a full media relations program, strategic counsel, outreach to patient advocacy and health organizations, and internal communications.

    The CIRM wants a firm steeped in education and advocacy for scientific and medical research, public funding and related topics.

    Proposals are due Nov. 30.