Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Lesson for CIRM From Dr. Kessler

The coverage of the firing of David Kessler as the dean of the medical school at UC San Francisco provides an example of mishandled PR that has some application to the California stem cell agency.

The missteps in the release of the information had little to do with the skills of those in the UCSF communications department, but probably a great deal to do with miscalculations at the top – at least from our perspective.

Kessler, on the other hand, skillfully drove the media coverage. The result was news stories across the country, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and ours below, that were dominated by Kessler's version of the affair. The chancellor's perspective came late and lamely.

How does all this apply to CIRM? It has do with perception, fast public reaction and top executives who listen carefully to knowledgeable communications professionals who also have access at the very top on a regular basis. At this point, CIRM seems to be headed in a somewhat different different direction, relegating its top communications person to the third tier in an organization structure that only has five layers.

Here is what happened in the Kessler case.

On Thursday the chancellor at UC San Francisco fired Kessler. It was obviously an event that the chancellor had anticipated well in advance – not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Kessler had already refused to resign, according the media reports. It was clear he was not likely to leave quietly.

On Friday morning, he sent out an email to colleagues at UC San Francisco that said he was being dismissed because of his efforts to uncover financial irregularities. That email quickly went out across the country and to the news media.

Meanwhile, UC San Francisco did not have anything to say. Friday afternoon, after the first news surfaced, an innocuous statement was put out by the chancellor. It did not address the issues raised by Kessler. Late Friday afternoon, the chancellor put out a stronger statement, declaring that Kessler's allegations had been investigated earlier and had no merit.

But that response came too late to change the focus of the coverage, which was heavily tilted towards Kessler's view of the world.

How could it have been handled differently by the chancellor? We are assuming that he did not consult his PR folks in advance. Instead, he could have anticipated the obvious attention his decision would receive. With that in mind, he could have issued an already prepared statement promptly after the dismissal, perhaps as early as Thursday. He could have anticipated the move by Kessler and had a response ready to roll out immediately instead of hours later. But that would have required the early input of the PR folks at UC San Francisco – PRIOR to the actual firing.

Keep in mind that we are not talking about the merits of Kessler's firing or the allegations – only the public perception and news coverage. From UCSF's institutional perspective, it has been tarred unfairly by Kessler. From Kessler's perspective, he has turned a negative event into something that reflects considerably more positive on him.

Given the controversial nature of the research funded by CIRM and its built-in conflicts of interest, bad news is always a good possibility. It behooves the organization to think carefully about how it plans to deal with that eventuality.


  1. David,

    Instead of spending $300,000 on a public relations consulting firm, CIRM and the ICOC ought to pay you for your solid advice and follow it.

    John M. Simpson
    Stem Cell Project Director
    Foundation For Taxpayer an Consumer Rights

  2. Anonymous2:12 PM

    I would say UCSF is run more like a private club than CIRM.Corruption- financial, scientific and discriminatory is rampant, especially in the upper tiers. It is an Institute which is festering from inside and will explode soon...