Tuesday, December 06, 2011

California Stem Cell PR and Spongy Voter Mandates

Some connected to the California stem cell agency, notably its founding father Robert Klein, are fond of declaring that the $3 billion enterprise has an immutable mandate from voters to pursue its endeavors.

Well, mandates come and go.

That lesson was learned once again this morning with the results of a Field Poll that showed that another big ticket effort, the California high speed rail project which was approved by 53 percent of voters, has lost not only its luster but its support. According to the poll, 64 percent of voters would now like another chance to vote on it. And 59 percent would reject it.

The reasons for the change of heart? Severe economic conditions in California, increased mainstream media coverage of high speed rail's deficiencies and bungling by its management.

While a San Francisco Chronicle columnist last summer called CIRM "the high speed rail of medicine," the stem cell agency has not suffered from the same sort of heavy and critical media attention. CIRM is all but invisible to the public. But agency is now is embarking on an ambitious PR effort to raise its profile and to move forward to win voter approval of another multibillion bond measure. Otherwise it will run out of funds in 2017.

CIRM must tread carefully with its new communications campaign. It has a legitimate responsibility to better inform Californians, and its PR could be more robust(which is a sort of the word of the day at CIRM).

But downsides do exist. With a possible ballot measure coming up, some ungenerous folks might construe aggressive CIRM PR as electioneering at taxpayer expense, including its subsidies of patient advocate activities, such as attendance at conventions. Even without a looming election campaign, the high speed rail project's $12.5 million PR effort attracted negative attention in at least two major newspapers just this week(see here and here).

Klein, who led the campaign that created CIRM and served as its chairman for seven years, is now gone, but his footprints remain. The agency, however, cannot assume that voter support seven years ago, in a much, much different world, translates to support today.

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