Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Telling the California Stem Cell Story: $1 Million for PR/Communications and More Likely

The California stem cell agency is already spending more than $1 million on selling itself, but its directors could be asked next week to bump up that figure substantially.

The subject will come up Tuesday at the first meeting of the directors' new subcommittee on communications, chaired by Robert Klein, a Palo Alto real estate investment banker who is also chairman of CIRM. Topic one on his agenda is “potential strategic options for communicating with the California public regarding CIRM’s performance.”

With the meeting only four business days away, no specific information is yet available for the public on just what Klein is proposing, which is ironic for a panel that is being called on to improve communications. The session also follows recommendations in January from a sister state panel to CIRM that called for more openness and transparency on the part of the $3 billion enterprise.

The new communications panel was created in December with little debate by directors, who were told that outside experts would assist in the new communications drive.

Missing from next week's agenda is the question of just what CIRM hopes to achieve with its communications/public relations program.

Does it want to change or shape public opinion in California? In the nation? If so, in what way? How can that be measured? The last question is the trickiest for public relations programs, whose goals tend to be squishy. Public relations practitioners often focus on activities as opposed to results.

One implicit, if not explicit goal of the upcoming public relations push is likely to be creation of an environment that would make the legislature eager to provide billions more for CIRM. Another potential goal would be to set the stage for voter approval of another huge bond measure. Without a major public relations push, winning more cash could be difficult given the deep financial problems facing California state government – not to mention a host of other worthy causes seeking state funds, ranging from the state's beleaguered education system to poor persons who need medical care.

Underlying the discussion is the question of the role of public relations at a state agency. Should CIRM be engaged in a taxpayer-financed campaign to perpetuate itself?

All state agencies have a responsibility to communicate effectively with the public. Naturally they peddle a point of view that supports what the agency does. But when do California public servants cross the line between straight-forward communication and aggressive, full-blown marketing/PR campaigns that are commonly found in business and politics.

Beefing up CIRM's PR efforts will not come cheap. The agency is spending about $1.1 million already, according to figures compiled by the California Stem Cell Report. The total includes $616,772 in outside contracts and roughly $500,000 for salaries and benefits for three staff persons, including the $190,008 salary for communications chief Don Gibbons. The figure for outside contracts includes some two-year contracts, including one for $230,000 with Fleishman-Hillard, Inc.

Our total does not include the $200,000 for CIRM sponsorship of the annual convention of the International Society for Stem Cell Research in San Francisco this summer, which could be called a maketing/PR expenditure.

At the Feb. 3, 2010, CIRM directors meeting, both Klein and co-vice chairman Art Torres raised questions about the Fleishman contract. Torres said that the directors communications subcommittee should review it to determine exactly what the firm is doing. Klein also was critical of the news and information clips that are being provided by Fleishman via Gibbons. He circulates the news clips to directors and another version of the clips to CIRM's more than 300 grantees.

Klein's and Torres' comments came during a briefing by Gibbons on the agency's communications effort. He said he and his staff are “reaching for the heart and the brain of the consumer.”

Because “so little” is left of the traditional media, Gibbons said that “bypassing” it is “very important to us.” He said the “gold standard” is face to face communication. He told directors he was preparing computer slides for them to use to speak to groups about CIRM. Another “very, very warm and fuzzy” presentation is also in the works to be used by patient advocacy groups, Gibbons said.

Gibbons cited a report sent to directors at the beginning of the year. It said that from December 2007 to December 2009, CIRM was “mentioned” in 1,233 articles in “various media.” Six favorable opinion pieces or editorials appeared in California newspapers. No negative coverage was reported, although some occurred.

Directors were also briefed on CIRM's online and social media efforts, including its own much improved Web site and presences on Facebook, Flickr and YouTube. The CIRM Web site receives about 11,000 “unique visitors” a month. According to Wikipedia, the term “unique visitor” is “a statistic describing a unit of traffic to a Web site, counting each visitor only once in the time frame of the report.”

About 55 percent of the audience comes from California, including many from CIRM itself and grantee institutions or recipients. Ninety persons, including a “large number” of disease advocacy groups, have signed up for CIRM's electronic monthly digest.

CIRM is making efforts to drive more traffic to its online sites, but that is one of the more difficult chores facing folks in cyberspace. CIRM's numbers are low compared to major news sites, which run into the millions, but its subject is specialized. Few persons wake up in the morning with a compelling need to check out the latest on CIRM's doings.

A high profile breakthrough in research would generate more online traffic as would a scandal. Major stories in the mainstream media also generate significant, new traffic on Web sites. Despite their declining numbers, newspapers remain the backbone of the news business in this country. A front page piece in the Los Angeles Times, which has all but ignored the stem cell agency, could dramatically push up CIRM's numbers at least temporarily.

The fundamental communications challenge for CIRM may well be time, as it is for all media. People only have so much time in their days. What they read and what they do on their computers is linked to what they consider important to their lives and what is high in the public eye. In other words, what people talk about.

In 2004, then President Bush was an unconscious ally of the folks who wanted to create CIRM via a ballot initiative. Without Bush's opposition, hESC research would have remained tucked away in the public consciousness. Bush's stem cell orders instead triggered a tumultuous national debate that raised the visibility of stem cell science and set the stage for voter approval of Prop. 71.

Today, the federal government is funding hESC science. President Obama has rescinded Bush's ban. The grand debate has slipped away, although the adamant foes continue to work their constituencies. Without a strong catalyst, CIRM is likely to have a difficult time raising its profile and building a public relations position that would justify billions of dollars more for stem cell research in California.

The public can take part in Communications Subcommittee meeting at teleconference locations in San Francisco, Irvine, Los Angeles(3), Menlo Park and Emeryville. Addresses can be found on the agenda.

(Editor's note: Gibbons communications presentation begins on p. 121 of the transcript of the Feb. 3, 2010, board of directors meeting. The slides that went with the presentation can be found here(slides 38 through 66). The December report on communications can be found here.)


  1. Anonymous10:19 AM

    Dear Stem Cell Report:

    Absolutely relevant update you are providing here. Keep up the excellent work. The citizens of California need your well thought out and balanced analysis of this state entity. Excellent, excellent work.

  2. Anonymous8:56 AM

    Let's SAVE money instead of spending bond money which the California taxpayer will need to repay. Mr. Torres is working 80% and receiving $250,000 a year plus benefits. If we raise his salary another $250,000 we can have him work full-time for $500,000 and save the other $500,000. Since he already is doing PR and outreach with his colleagues while campaigning for them, we all win and save money. No need to outsource or request RFQs or Request for Proposals. Let's also not waste time with a Code of Conduct because Mr. Torre is not following it anyway.


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