Thursday, October 02, 2008

FDA Hires a PR Firm to Tarnish its Image

It’s only appropriate that on the day of the Vice Presidential debate, Alaska Newspapers Inc. is making front page news.

But it’s not for the reason you may think.

The Washington Post has a top story today on how FDA circumvented the government competitive contracting rules in order to ensure that Qorvis Communications received a $300,000 public relations deal.

Alaska Newspapers served as the middleman. How’s that, you ask?

The group doesn’t have to compete for federal contracts because it qualifies for special set-asides. So, ANI would get the deal and hand it off to Qorvis. And that’s exactly what they did, according to the WashPost.

FDA deputy commissioner for operations John Dyer, a former CMS official, said in the story that the contract has been suspended and that the agency has launched an internal investigation.

FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach and other senior officials did not know about the no-bid contract, Dyer says in the story.

Von Eschenbach has been besieged with criticism of the agency from various sides for two years. He must be feeling the wear and tear but this is the kind of project that should have been brought to his attention.

It would be a good idea for the commissioner to know the FDA had hired the same PR firm that works for PhRMA “to create and foster a lasting positive public image of the agency for the American public,” as the Washington Post describes.

As I recall, FDA’s perceived “cozy” relationship with the drug industry has been an issue of public concern lately.

The fact that the FBI raided Qorvis for work the company did on behalf of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia back in 2004 probably should have raised a red flag as well when it came to choosing the right firm. Is there a PR company shortage I was unaware of?

Former FDA associate commissioner for external affairs Peter Pitts has some interesting behind-the-scenes insight on outsourcing PR. To read it, click here.

This most recent development has four major impacts on FDA:

1) Further supports the public perception that FDA is dysfunctional.

2) Undermines the leadership of von Eschenbach. Where was he on this thing?

3) Needlessly stigmatizes FDA by lumping the agency with other politicized no-bid contracts. Is FDA synonymous with Halliburton?

4) Triggers yet another Congressional probe by the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) says his committee will investigate the matter, which could result in a high-profile hearing. Here’s what happened last time von Eschenbach went up to Capitol Hill.

It's a sign of FDA's fortunes when the agency goes out of its way--and budget--to hire a PR firm to improve its public image, tarnishes its image in the process, gets a Congressional investigation out of it, and still doesn't have a PR agency.


John Kamp said...

Ouch. This story is bad news for all of us who care deeply about the FDA.

The American people have no idea how good the rank and file employees are, and how well they do their jobs. FDA staff could use a good shot of good press.

This caper insures that it will not happen soon.

Ramsey Baghdadi said...

Thanks for your comment, John. Again, I know there are a lot of PR firms out there...I know because I get about 500 emails from them each day. Well, maybe not 500. 450...

Anonymous said...

Nice piece! Qorvis appears to have a really stellar reputation: representing Saudi Arabia after 9-11! Their site also notes Halliburton.

Other clients listed online include Phillip Morris so they're nicely rounded...

Stephanie said...

Wild! I agree with JK's comment about the FDA. Overworked, understaffed, and could *definitely* use good press! Too bad.