Monday, June 13, 2011

Defining a PR Post: CIRM Directors Take a Crack

A dozen directors of the California stem cell agency are scheduled to spend about 30 minutes next Monday crafting a job description for a new, top level public relations person at the $3 billion enterprise.

Ordinarily, such an activity would not come to the attention of directors, much less warrant the attention of even this blog. However, the position is caught up in the touchy management reorganization that grew out of the directors' performance evaluation last year of CIRM President Alan Trounson. The new post seems to have evolved from dissatisfaction with how CIRM and its efforts have been portrayed in the mainstream media coupled with the likelihood that the agency may seek $5 billion in additional bond funding from California voters in a few years.

CIRM already spends about $1 million(including internal compensation and outside contracts) on communications and PR efforts, directed by Don Gibbons, the agency's chief communications officer. Gibbons works under the direction of the CIRM president. The new position would report to the chairman of the agency.

No salary has yet been specified for the new post, but it is likely to match or exceed Gibbons' $196,409 annual salary in 2010.

Creation of the job seems to be following the model of the much-criticized dual executive situation at CIRM involving the chairman and the president. The new position would report independently to the chairman. It is not clear what his or her relationship would be to Gibbons.

Outgoing CIRM Chairman Robert Klein said at the May 4 directors' meeting that although the "public communications officer" would report to the chair
"...(I)t's going to be important to have a collegial relationship and a coordinated relationship with the president so we have a coordinated voice in this organization."
So far, the CIRM budget contains no support budget for the new PR person although clearly he or she is going to need one.

Our comment: Based on 30 years experience in the news business in Los Angeles and Sacramento and two years as a flack (PR person) for the governor of California, it is clear that this dual PR arrangement will be a mess. It is essential that the agency's PR effort operate under the direction of one person. Otherwise, it will fumble and stumble, lack clarity, react slowly and constantly be searching for direction. Putting two persons in charge of an enterprise means that no one is in charge.

CIRM President Alan Trounson is already balking at designating the new position as a senior officer of CIRM. However, without that designation and access, CIRM should not bother with hiring another person. To be effective, the senior PR person must be part of the top executive team and be prepared to give advice at the earliest stages of proposals and at the highest level. Otherwise, dubious initiatives may be launched with no real understanding of how they will play out in the media or affect the public -- much less how they can be sold.

Finally, top executives at CIRM should not confuse their own excellent expertise on matters of science, law and financing with expertise in communications and media campaigns. These matters require specialized knowledge, skills and years of experience and contacts that the top executives at CIRM do not have. That is not to diminish their capabilities, which are considerable, but it simply reflects the fact that they followed a different professional path.

The directors' Communications Subcommittee will take up the job description in a teleconference meeting that has public locations in both Northern and Southern California, including San Francisco, Duarte, La Jolla, South San Francisco, Irvine with more likely to be added. Specific locations can be found on the meeting agenda.

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