Permission Impossible

  • by: |
  • 02/28/2008
After a delicious buffet lunch of tunafish and ice tea, the inaugural meeting of the FDA's Risk Communications Advisory Committee returned to begin the second half of Day One with the open public comment portion of the program.

The first person to speak was a free-lance reporter who bitterly complained about the agency's "permission to speak" rule. This means that FDA employees cannot speak to reporters without permission.

Her main beef was that her calls were not returned promptly (if at all) and that access was often not granted -- at the discretion of a press officer and without explanation or justification.

Okay, a couple of points here.

First, of course FDA employees need permission before they speak to the press. This is appropriate otherwise chaos ensures. However, access should be denied only under the most limited circumstances -- and that denial should not be at the discretion of a press officer. In any event, access should be granted (broadly) or denied (rarely) with alacrity.

When I was at FDA, the press office reported to me. I held a meeting with all of the press officers and my prop was a telephone. I held it up and pointed out to the staff that the phone came with buttons "at no additional charge." My point was that reporter calls should be returned as soon as humanly possible.

A few years later, shortly after I announced that I was leaving the agency, I received a call from an FDA beat reporter who said she was sad I was leaving because, "I returned her calls."

Talk about a low bar.

It's not about "permission to speak," it's about permission to speak regularly -- and on deadline.

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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