PRWeek Q&A: Beth Martino, FDA

Beth Martino, associate commissioner for external affairs at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), talks to Jaimy Lee about the possibility of an FDA Facebook page, how she uses Twitter, and communicating to consumers.

Beth Martino, associate commissioner for external affairs at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), talks to Jaimy Lee about the possibility of an FDA Facebook page, how she uses Twitter, and communicating to consumers.

Martino has led the federal agency's communications since March and previously served as director of communications for Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson.

You've been at FDA for nearly five months. What are your primary goals for FDA's communications?   My primary goals are very similar to the goals that I have for communications in general, and that is to ensure that we get good information about the work that we do to all of our audiences, whether it be Congress, regulated industry, or just a member of the public who wants to know about a food recall.

What are the agency's communications strengths?
There's a general sense that we do a pretty good job of reaching various groups and regulated industries. That type of information tends to be pretty technical. The counter to that is that I'm not sure we have focused a lot of taking the technical information and translating it in a way that might make sense for a consumer audience or other less technical audiences.

What areas can be improved upon?
Government communications can be a little bit too bureaucratic, a little bit too technical. There is a large consumer audience, a large public audience, that I think government has to speak to. In one way or another, government agencies are responsible for letting the public know what we do for them. We can't overlook them as an audience. We have to make sure that we're doing a good job of explaining the things that are happening, whether it be breaking news or ongoing initiatives.

The other thing that's important, particularly in government, is to look for ways where we can have a two-way conversation with the people that interact with our agency. The communications needs of our population are rapidly evolving. Whether it's from years back when people were starting to use the telephone to an age like today where people are increasingly using mediums like Facebook, Foursquare, and Twitter, I think it's very important that government consider how we can have good conversations in those ways.

FDA is on Twitter and YouTube. What about Facebook and Foursquare – would those eventually be incorporated into FDA communications?
We do have a presence on Twitter and we're starting to figure out how we can use that. There are probably more ways that we can use that particular platform. For now, having a presence on Facebook probably makes sense. It would help us to reach a little bit different demographic. Another place where we have some plans in the works is Flickr. You mentioned that we already have a presence on YouTube and we've had a good response to some of the videos we've launched with FDA Basics.

It seems that people are eager to put faces to the work that FDA does. Blogging is another area that we're really deep into some planning on. For the agency, there are lot of areas where using a blog to describe some of the processes that we go through might make a lot of sense. It would also give the public an opportunity to comment along the way. Those are some areas where you might see some new things from the FDA in the relatively near future.

It sounds like there's a shift to tailor communications to consumers.
It's certainly something that's important to me. We have some information that shows we're doing a relatively good job communicating to audiences that already have a thoroughly in-depth understanding of what we do. We can always improve that but it's also a good time to say, “We're reaching these audiences well. Who might we not be reaching? Who could we do a more effective job of reaching?”

You're seeing, under President Obama's leadership, more of a move to make things more accessible to the general public. If you look at some of the things that Health and Human Services is doing – they just launched, which I think is a very consumer-friendly website. FDA should be looking towards some of the ways that we can make our content more accessible to that audience.

Going back to FDA Basics, you said you've had a pretty good response.
Through the beginning of July, we'd had almost 600,000 visitors but, more important, we'd had more than 6,500 comments on the content that we've posted there, which to me signals that both the types of information and the way that we're providing it are helping to at least generate some conversation. I'd like to see how we can capitalize on that. Overall, we've had a good response in providing that basic information.

You're a personal user of Twitter and you recently asked about the best and worst of government communications. Did you get a good response to that tweet?
I did get some interesting responses to that and I'm always on the lookout for good examples government-wide of the best and worst that we do. I had the opportunity recently to meet some communicators from EPA and they have some things that their administrator does – she has a presence on Twitter, on a blog, and some other tools on their website – are interesting.

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