Opinion: Convalescent Plasma, the FDA and Communications

The controversy regarding the FDA’s recent endorsement of convalescent plasma in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic  (and subsequent walking back of its enthusiasm) had all the elements of a Netflix political thriller. The end result was that FDA spokesperson Emily Miller lost her job and the organization lost some credibility. Perceptions will inevitably vary with one’s political persuasion during these extremely polarized times; however, in it there are critical reminders for communicators.

Communications and organizational leadership must be aligned.

FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn initially defended the agency’s position by using a misleading statistic to exaggerate the science behind the treatment’s use. However, he recognized the impact of his words and within 24 hours admitted on Twitter that criticism of him was “entirely justified.” Miller, however, continued to vigorously defend the statements, repeating the misleading statistic on her own Twitter accounts even after its inaccuracy had been exposed by experts. 

When the head of an organization is saying one thing publicly while communications says another, it doesn’t matter who is right for it to be botched. Clearly there was a disconnect, and the FDA’s credibility was the biggest loser. Organizational leads and communications must be in regular contact and aligned, or they risk significant loss of trust in their reliability and good intentions.

Communications should be neither a substitute for good organizational strategy nor a scapegoat for bad policy. 

One could read Miller’s firing as making the PR person a sacrificial lamb. I can’t speak to whether the FDA’s leaders think that getting rid of Miller will solve their credibility problem — but I can unequivocally say that it won’t. 

The best PR strategy in the world can’t protect an organization from its own poor policy or lack of integrity (see: Uber, Theranos, Wells Fargo, et al ad infinitum). In this case, Commissioner Hahn appeared willing to allow political pressures to dictate FDA policy — and that is at the heart of the storm of criticism surrounding the agency, not anything Emily Miller did or said. 

The importance of knowing the business cannot be overstated. 

To be effective, communicators must at least demonstrate curiosity about, and better yet have a decent understanding of, the organization’s business. 

Of course, we can adapt and learn different industries; in my career I have worked in and needed to understand the manufacturing, hospitality and entertainment, automotive, technology and agriculture industries. Our knowledge must, however, span beyond memorizing core messaging and arm us to offer accurate and appropriate counsel. 

Communicators must always behave ethically and honestly.

There’s a reason that the first professional obligation in the IABC Code of Ethics is honesty. We cannot build trust in our employers or in our profession without it. 

When the spokesperson representing a scientific and medical agency promoted information based seemingly less in science than in politics, she appears to the public to have violated that commitment. While I believe that the FDA has scapegoated her, she made it easy for them to do so.

Communicators cannot knowingly pass along falsehoods or exaggerations, or say anything requiring contortions of logic or credulity to arrive at a desired message — even if refusing to do so costs us a job. The short-term damage to our careers from losing a role due to honesty will be outweighed by the long-term damage caused by dishonesty. 

While the politics of coronavirus policy will inevitably continue, the lessons of these controversies for communicators seem quite clear.

Christopher Barger

IABC Detroit Board Member

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