Friday, May 23, 2008

CIRM Improves Web Site, Moves to Strengthen Communications

The California stem cell agency beefed up its web site today, adding key links and information as well as tools for those who would like to follow its affairs closely.

The move is part of a communications and public relations effort this year that includes adding more staff and hiring outside firms to provide assistance.

In addition to the web site improvements, CIRM this week posted an RFP for a PR firm to provide $110,000 worth of help. The agency also wants to hire a communications manager on staff at a salary of up to $120,000. It has signed a $90,000 contract for a communications special project manager. And it is about ready to sign a deal for an overhaul of its web site.

One of the more significant improvements today on the CIRM web site is a provision for email alerts on the agency's activities. Called e-alerts, they permit CIRM fans or foes to sign up for automatic email notification in the following areas: RFAs and "other news for researchers," press releases, meeting and event announcements and consumer briefs.

Since CIRM's very inception, tracking its affairs has been difficult because it was not always clear when new information was posted on its web site. The e-alert service is a major step forward in addressing the problem. However, the e-alert sign-up has one minor flaw. It has a limit of 35 characters on the e-mail address of subscribers. But we suspect that is not likely to be much of an issue for most persons.

Also new on the CIRM site is an "about stem cells" feature, that includes definitions of key terms, links to major outside sources and a rundown on stem cell research that has been financed by CIRM. The agency has also combined the previously separate job opportunities and RFPs on the same page.

All of this comes under the domain of Don Gibbons(see photo), formerly of Harvard and Stanford, who came aboard last February as chief communications officer. He replaced Dale Carlson, who left last fall to return to the private sector.

CIRM President Alan Trounson, himself in place fulltime only since January, early on identified public outreach and education as one of his main priorities. CIRM's strategic plan calls for spending as much as $4.5 million on the effort.

The plan says,
"To an unusual degree, stem cell research is in the public eye. Its progress is keenly followed not only by scientists and clinicians, but by ethicists, legislators, politicians, social scientists, and those interested in public policy. Most importantly, patients and their families feel a deep involvement in stem cell research. The engagement, support and interest of this broad constituency are a great strength for CIRM. It also confers a responsibility for the Institute to communicate and interpret the results of stem cell research in many venues and to be aware of its broad impact on society; effective communication that fosters awareness is an imperative for CIRM."
Earlier this week, CIRM posted the $110,000 RFP for a PR firm to research and make recommendations concerning negative and positive perceptions of CIRM among opinion leaders. The proposal also seeks assistance in generating coverage in national media.

The RFP states,
"Given CIRM’s position as the No. 1 funder of this stem cell work, the CIRM perspective should be included in every major overview piece in these national outlets. CIRM staff has excellent contacts in traditional print national news outlets and is looking to fill gaps in national broadcast outlets and in national opinion and thought-leader magazines."
The contract also calls for the firm to provide news clipping service on stem cell issues for daily email distribution to about 150 persons.

The $90,000, special projects RFP this month went to Ellen Rose, who was brought in last year on an interim basis, Gibbons said. She was formerly with Alza, a drug delivery subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson.

We are a believer in performance-based public relations efforts. Positive coverage of CIRM and hESC research doesn't necessarily happen on its own. Reporters and editors are awash in information. Getting their attention is especially difficult in these days of shrinking staff and space in the print media.

Good public relations also means building contacts and trust that will serve the agency well when the inevitable bad news arises, including the "potential tragedies" in clinical trials warned of by CIRM Chairman Robert Klein.

But good-news stories are fundamentally based on the agency's own performance, responsiveness and openness. Without a solid track record, no amount of spin or rhetoric can gloss over weaknesses and failings – at least in the long term.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item omitted the word "broadcast" in the quote from the $110,000 RFP.)

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