Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Stem Cell Take on the World Cup: Chalk Up One for California

Angel Di Maria
Photo Franny Schertzer
The $3 billion California stem cell agency scored big in this week’s coverage of what is one of the biggest sporting events on Earth – the World Cup.

One would not think soccer and stem cells are a natural combination. But an internationally celebrated player for Argentina, Angel Di Maria, pulled them together. He got banged up a bit and is trying a stem cell treatment so he can bounce back for tomorrow’s final match between Argentina and Germany, which is expected to be viewed by more than 3.2 billion people.(Yes, billion is correct.)

Kevin McCormack
Photo Fog City Journal
Yesterday, California’s much less well known stem cell agency got into the game, so to speak. Kevin McCormack, the agency's lead PR “striker” – that's a soccer term – wrote about Di Maria on the agency’s blog.  McCormack sounded a warning about the coverage of the Di Maria treatment as well as lowering expectations that Di Maria’s stem cell treatment might do any good.

McCormack’s item is what led to the big mainstream media score. Lenny Bernstein of the Washington Post saw McCormack’s item on the Internet  (score one for the impact of social media on stem cell PR) and contacted McCormack, who has  played soccer himself as well as engaging in a little boxing and squash.

The result was a nicely done story in the Washington Post that had a strong emphasis on what the stem cell agency had to say about dubious stem cell treatments along with a mention of the California agency's size and reach.

Bernstein also wrote,
“McCormack and others express concern that when pro athletes and other celebrities have unproven treatments, it sends the rest of us weekend warriors out in search of the same. Here a good bit of blame goes to us in the media. A 2012 analysis conducted for the journal Molecular Therapy showed that 72.7 percent of the media coverage of athletes and stem cell therapy didn’t address whether the treatment works, and 42 percent referred to alleged benefits. Only 5.7 percent of the stories brought up possible safety issues and risks.”
Why does all this accrue to the agency’s benefit?  Number one is that it portrays the agency in a favorable light. Number two: it makes more people aware of what the agency does. Number three: the Post syndicates its stories and Bernstein piece is likely to get play in other papers. Four, the article will turn up for years in future searches by writers looking at the use of stem cell therapies by athletes. Five, it is a rare case of coverage involving the agency by a major and respected East Coast newspaper. Six, because the article deals with sports, it will reach a large audience that normally would avoid stem cell news.

California’s stem cell research effort is well-known among certain tiny, insular circles. But it is all but invisible to the public at large in California. If the agency is to secure additional funding (money runs out in less than three years), it needs to be known widely and favorably for good work. The Washington Post is an example of the type of recognition that needs to be replicated many times if the agency wants to secure a new future. 
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