Monday, October 24, 2011

Stem Cell Agency PR/Communications Not Up to Snuff, CIRM-funded Report Says

The communications/public relations efforts of the $3 billion California stem cell agency have fallen short, damaged its own public image and led to organizational "dysfunction," according to a CIRM-commissioned study.

The report by the Sacramento firm of Townsend Raimundo Besler and Usher cited "less than satisfactory results" and CIRM's failure to keep pace with the need to communicate with many different audiences. The political consulting and PR firm wrote,
"(A) lack of coordination and systematic organization has led at times to dysfunction, and, while the Institute may be respected and well-known in the scientific world, it is far less of either among other critical audiences."
(Disclosure note: The author of this item on the California Stem Cell Report and Jeff Raimundo, one of the principals of the Townsend firm, worked together at The Sacramento Bee two decades ago.)

The report, to be acted on tomorrow night and on Wednesday by CIRM directors, cited some measureable PR successes. But it said CIRM "lives in two worlds – the high-level domain of advanced scientific research and the secular world of politics and public opinion."

The Townsend firm recommended a number of changes to improve matters, including "rebranding" the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the official name of the agency, as the "Stem Cell Institute." Townsend said the agency's formal name "has proven not particularly effective in helping the public" understand its work.

Townsend also recommended centralizing communications management, reorganizing existing communcations staff, creating an annual communications/PR plan and developing a set of messages that will generate public support. Also recommended were polling and focus groups to help formulate needed strategies along with specific ways of measuring the success of CIRM's communications plans.

Townsend cited the need to go beyond traditional scientific as well as mainstream media. The report said that the while public has traditionally "gotten their information from mainstream news media, that is no longer true. Much of the flow of information to the public is through interactive and electronic media today, particularly blogs and websites."

The report indirectly referred to former Chairman Robert Klein, who stepped down in June. Townsend said,
"Virtually since its inception and until recently, the Institute has been led by a high-profile, articulate and charismatic individual who assumed much of the responsibility for communicating with many if not most of CIRM's audiences. Although that situation helped keep messages simple and focused, it did not keep pace with the demands of the Institute to communicate at many different levels and with many different audiences."
CIRM commissioned the study following the June election of Jonathan Thomas, a Los Angeles bond financier, to replace Klein, who is a Palo Alto real estate investment banker.

At the time of Thomas' election, he told directors that the agency is in a "communications war." He said the world is focused on "internal issues" at CIRM instead of "the grand, big picture. "  He also discussed CIRM's financial situation. Its bond funding will run out in roughly 2017. And prior to his departure, Klein expressed the need to seek another multibillion dollar bond measure sometime in the next few years. Such a ballot measure would seem certain to be rejected today, given the state's current financial crisis and the lack of the cures that were touted in the 2004 election campaign that created CIRM and that was headed by Klein.

Earlier this year, directors approved an organizational change that created a senior level director of public communications in the office of the CIRM chairman to market the stem cell agency to the public. The agency is currently in the process of hiring that person. However, the three-person communications staff remains within the president's office.

Accompanying the Townsend report was a document from CIRM President Alan Trounson detailing responsibilities for the new hire and declaring that he "fully supports" the new communications effort. Under Trounson's structure, the PR chief would report to Art Torres, the co-vice chairman of CIRM, and Ellen Feigal, vice president for research and development. Trounson's statement does not specifically delineate who reports to the new PR person but places responsibility for virtually all of the agency's communications efforts in the hands of that person.

The Townsend study also says that CIRM is understaffed for its communications tasks although it did not specifically recommend new hires.

The Townsend report was posted on the CIRM website sometime during the weekend, only two business days before it is to be considered, making it nearly impossible for the public or interested parties to prepare thoughtful comments.

The California Stem Cell Report asked CIRM earlier for the cost of the Townsend report as well as a copy of the contract, both of which are a public record. Neither piece of information has been forthcoming. Sphere: Related Content

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