Saturday, June 27, 2009

CIRM Mishandles Reaction to Hoover Commission

The California stem cell agency this week fed right into a Little Hoover Commission finding that is prone to defensive and adversarial reaction to outside criticism.

's response to the commission's report basically threatened a lawsuit if the Hoover Commission recommendations were adopted by the legislature. CIRM said,
“...(A)ny attempt to enact the changes through legislation rather than by a vote of the people would likely result in a court challenge, which would be costly and time consuming.”
The assertion raised the specter of a California state department possibly suing the state's own governor and legislature. More likely, a CIRM-friendly group would be recruited to file the litigation.

CIRM's statement, aside from the rhetoric, was largely based on a legal memo by its outside counsel. CIRM's chief communications officer, Don Gibbons, said the release was distributed to reporters who requested it, but it was not posted on the CIRM web site. We asked Gibbons why. He replied,
"I see no reason for drawing attention to something for which the process was a farce. When, at the last minute they voted to change our quorum requirements, the one item on their original list that made a modicum of sense, there was not a single commissioner who knew what our current requirement was. Only one of many ludicrous moments in the process."
In an email, he also cited the “hypocrisy” of the Hoover Commission recommendation for more openness for CIRM while the commission withheld its draft recommendations from the public and CIRM until the full report was approved this week by the commission. Gibbons has a point there, which we have written about.

CIRM's statement on the report, however, was another bit of evidence supporting the commission's position that the agency has been unnecessarily adversarial and defensiveness at times.

The report quoted Donna Gerardi Riordan, former director of programs at the California Council on Science and Technology, as saying that “framers” of Prop. 71 were “short-sightedly taunting” state lawmakers. The result was “rancorous public attention” that stood in the way of constructive solutions.

More immediately, however, the CIRM statement ired CIRM board member Jeff Sheehy, who aired his concerns publicly in an unsolicited comment here on the California Stem Cell Report. It is reasonably certain that other board members were less than pleased as well.

The CIRM statement also triggered a negative response from a reader who must remain anonymous. Foolish was the term he used. The reader said CIRM should have sent the following comment to the commission regarding its work.
“Thank you very much for your thorough report and recommendations. It’s clear the staff and commission devoted considerable effort to this important project. We appreciate the constructive spirit in which the recommendations were offered and will give them appropriate consideration as we move forward.”
It would be easy to assign responsibility for the CIRM statement to Gibbons, since he is in charge of CIRM public relations. However, it was clearly released under Klein's authorization and is not the only occasion that Klein has demonstrated seriously flawed judgment about public relations matters. (See here, here and here.)


  1. Dave,

    There's no reason for me to be anonymous. I'm the fellow who suggested what should have been CIRM's appropriate response to the Little Hoover Commission report.

    It also would have helped if the release was written AFTER reading the document. The release was released on June 24; the Commission's report was first available around noon on June 26.

    Sadly, despite the ridiculously large amounts of taxpayer dollars CIRM pays for PR advice the leadership simply doesn't get it -- or if they do, they ignore reality.

    Normally, I'd charge for communications advice, but these folks are doing something that is tremendously important and clearly need all the help they can get.

    I hope they don't keep shooting themselves in the foot and am available for consultation -- for free.

    My first tip: Read the report before your shoot your mouths off. And, for goodness sake thank them for their efforts even if you don't agree with every recommendation.

    My second: Consult with your board before making policy statements.

    My third tip (good things come in threes): Really, really worry about why your highly respected, tremendously talented chief science officer, Dr. Marie Csete, is quitting a $310,000 job after a little more than a year in the position. This matters. If you have a thick skin -- a requirement for anybody who works for a state agency -- the Little Hoover Commission report is the least of your worries.

    John M. Simpson
    Director, Consumer Watchdog Stem Cell Oversight and Accountability Project.
    Former Deputy Editor, USA Today
    MA Communications Management, USC.

  2. Dave,

    Regarding my previous comment: I got a key fact wrong. Don Gibbons actually released CIRM's reaction after the Little Hoover Commission Report was released. According to Gibbons here's what happened:

    It was not clear when the report would be made public. It could have come after the Commission's meeting on June 24, after the meeting on June 25 or later, as turned out to be the case. It was released around noon on Friday, June 26.

    Gibbons had prepared a tentative release for possible distribution on June 24. He edited the news release after the report was posted on Friday, but inadvertently did not correct the date.

    It was sent out about four hours after the Commission's report, but only to reporters who requested comment.

    I'm sorry for any confusion I caused, but stand by everything else I've said about the statement from CIRM's leadership.

    Thanks for the opportunity to set the record straight.

    John M. Simpson
    Director, Consumer Watchdog's Stem Cell Oversight and Accountability Project.