The Food and Drug Administration finally gets it.
Reporters for years had complained that the agency was a one-way street for information, where officials there didn't invest much time in education or building relationship with members of the media.
Stories coming out the FDA followed a formula, with a primary focus on new drug approvals and recalls. The agency was also slow to respond to many of the issues that had damaged its reputation and credibility in recent years: such as how it communicates risk information, drug safety concerns, and the separation of politics and science.
But the agency has now committed to changing that perception. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs, has confirmed that the FDA is looking to expand its press team so it can communicate a greater volume of information at a quicker pace.
In addition, it is working to make those changes happen by holding educational symposia for the media and using more interactive tools such as its Drug Watch Web page.
The FDA is finally catching up to the private sector in its use of more transparent PR tactics; many of its drug and medical device partners are a year or more ahead of the agency in their efforts to build trust.
It might be no coincidence then that these efforts coincide with the recent hiring of Susan Bro, who came out of Pfizer's PR team, and will serve as senior communications advisor in the Office of the Commissioner.
Bro has spoken about the need to collaborate with drug and medical device companies and coordinate outreach efforts in order to build trust. She blames some of the sensationalism in the media, for instance, on the discordant voices – coming separately from the FDA and pharmaceutical companies – addressing drug safety and approval issues.
Her goal is to have the public and private sector speak with a unified voice.
Yet the FDA still has to fill one very important post in order to cap off its transparency initiative. Its top communications seat – the position of associate commissioner for external relations – has been vacant since January, when Sheila Dearybury Walcoff left to take a position on the senior staff of the Department of Health and Human Services.
As an attorney, Walcoff was undoubtedly well versed in the many healthcare regulatory issues facing the agency – from drug pricing to importation. But she was an unusual choice for the top communications spot since her background was decidedly in the legal world.
The transparency initiative – and the openness to which the FDA has committed – will go a long way in helping the agency overcome the trust issues that have bubbled up over the Vioxx recall and the black-box warnings on anti-depressants.
The communications team now has strong support from it upper ranks to continue to build its latest transparency efforts.
But it could also use a strong communications leader who understands not only the legal and the healthcare policy environment, but also the importance of building trust and credibility.