PROFILE: Pitts is determined to give FDA comms a shot in the arm

Peter Pitts is known for being dogged, a characteristic that has served him well in the private sector. But now the FDA is counting on him to bring that passion to government work.

Peter Pitts is known for being dogged, a characteristic that has served him well in the private sector. But now the FDA is counting on him to bring that passion to government work.

As the chief regulatory body responsible for determining the safety of food, drugs, medical devices, biologics, cosmetics, and radiation-emitting products, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) turns its head when it doesn't see its name in print. Even the most vehement of marketing pros might shy away from the top communications post at a government agency that, without even trying, manages to grab more headlines than Hollywood. However, Peter Pitts, the FDA's associate commissioner for external relations, has taken on what he calls "the most stimulating job I've ever had by far," the same way he has all those before it - with fearless doggedness. Says Harper's Bazaar publisher Valerie Salembier, Pitts' former boss at the New York Post, "He was a bulldog. Once he got a hold of your pant cuffs, no matter how hard you shook, you could not get rid of him. He is relentless." Salembier's is not a surprising portrayal, considering Pitts himself admits that his decision to take his first job was made with headstrong determination. "I went into advertising because my father told me not to," he recalls. After harsh financial realities dissipated his post-college dream of living in Greenwich Village and writing for a political magazine, Pitts joined his father's ad agency, Lois, Pitts, Gershon Advertising, in 1981. Less than a year later, Pitts decided it wasn't for him, and accepted the promotions manager position at Cable Health Network. "That was my first exposure to healthcare marketing," he notes. It was also his first encounter with then coworker, now wife, Jane Mogel, daughter of Leonard Mogel, one of the founders of National Lampoon Magazine. "I married into a media family," says Pitts. This immersion made Pitts feel right at home at the popular outlets where he went on to work. As associate creative director at Reader's Digest, Pitts developed advertising inserts, many of which were for healthcare companies. In this role, Pitts had his first interaction with the FDA, working on a project with then Bristol-Myers to develop an insert for anti-anxiety drug BuSpar. Pitts, who went to the FDA to get the advertising materials approved, says of the meeting, "They sat there with their arms crossed, and said it will never happen. Times have certainly changed. It's no longer about whether direct-to-consumer advertising will happen, but about how it can be made better." From Reader's Digest, Pitts went to McCall's magazine, where he served as director of creative services. In a market flooded with women's magazines, this is where Pitts says he learned about finding points of differentiation in a brand. "It is crucial to always understand your core brand," Pitts advises. "Otherwise, your constituents will desert you. That is as true at the FDA as it is at a magazine." In his next job, at the New York Post, getting people to recognize the brand was not the problem. Everyone knew the Post, but "that did not mean everyone liked it," says Pitts. According to Salembier, "We needed to market the paper to the advertising community to make them understand that the tabloid is good. Peter did many clever things to accomplish that." Leaving the Post was a "lifestyle" decision, says Pitts, whose wife was pregnant with their second child at the time. He took the director of marketing job at The Washington Times. Though out of the Big Apple, reinventing the Times' marketing strategy required a "New York Post approach." He explains, "With The Washington Post having the largest market penetration in the US, we had to be feisty and in-your-face." Pitts exited the media world when he was named VP of marketing and communications for Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based think tank. After two years there, Pitts finally satisfied what he calls "the itch to privatize" himself. He formed his own marketing communications firm, Peter J. Pitts & Associates, which he ran alone until his craving for human interaction became too strong. "When you start looking for meetings to go to, it's time to rethink your situation," he jokes. While Pitts was doing a two-year stint at ad agency Montgomery Zukerman Davis, his partners from Peter J. Pitts & Associates reformed the firm under the name Wired World. Pitts rejoined the company as managing partner in 2000. Comfortable with his situation in Indianapolis, where he feels like his kids really grew up, Pitts did not see a return to DC in his family's future. He couldn't hide his excitement, however, when he heard that the FDA's new commissioner, Mark McClellan, was looking for someone to implement an aggressive communications strategy. After submitting his r?sum? and receiving an eager call back from McClellan's office, Pitts was on the next plane to meet with him. "We hit it off right away," says Pitts of McClellan. "His passion for getting things done in an expedited fashion excited me." The commissioner was equally impressed by Pitts, who, without having ever worked in government, was offered the FDA's top communications job this past March. Of his FDA post, Pitts says, "When you work in the private sector, you think your life would be perfect if you could pick up the phone and get placement in the Times. Now I have that. And while that can be as much a problem as it is a solution, I recognize that talking to the press is always an opportunity." He rephrases, "'No comment' is always an opportunity missed." ----- Peter Pitts 2003-present FDA, associate commissioner, external relations 2000-2003 Wired World Comms., managing partner 1997-1999 Montgomery Zukerman Davis, SVP 1996-1997 Peter J. Pitts & Associates, president 1994-1996 Hudson Institute, VP, marcomms 1991-1994 The Washington Times, marketing director 1989-1990 New York Post, marketing/promotion director 1988-1989 McCall's, director of creative services 1984-1988 Reader's Digest, associate creative director 1982-1984 Cable Health Network, promotions manager 1981-1982 Lois, Pitts, Gershon Advertising, AE

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