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AHCJ chapter, FDA press staff meet

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Age cited as reason for ‘purge' in FDA press office

By Jill Wechsler

The Washington, D.C., chapter of the Association of Health Care Journalists met with top public affairs officials of the Food and Drug Administration on Nov. 4 to learn more about how they operate and how reporters can best obtain needed information.

Beth Martino, associate commissioner for external affairs since March, led the FDA contingent; with her were top aides Meghan Scott and Heidi Rebello, plus press officers Karen Riley and Jeff Ventura. Phil Galewitz of Kaiser  Health News arranged the venue, and he and Jill Wechsler moderated.

Martino emphasized her hope to build good relations with reporters. She mentioned plans to issue a weekly media tip sheet that would indicate upcoming speeches and appearances of top FDA officials, something that is now commonly done by other federal agencies. She also advised reporters to indicate in calls or emails if they need a quick turnaround on a question to meet a deadline. Martino explained that FDA receives about 30 to 50 press inquiries on the average day, and that some culling is necessary. In response to prodding from the 15 reporters at the briefing,

Karen Riley, leader of the medical products press office team, said that queries from reporters should produce an immediate acknowledgment and a response in a few hours; if a reporter doesn't hear anything by end of day, she should call back. Jeff Ventura, who heads up press information for tobacco products, mentioned that all FDA press officers now have Blackberrys, and will return messages from reporters who leave call-back info. Reporters can refer to the attached sheet if they have questions about which press officer to call; Karen said they could always email her if they were unsure of which press officer handled particular subject matter.

AHCJ members made a number of suggestions that Martino and her team said they would consider seriously. One idea is for top FDA officials to hold informal roundtables with the press to better explain policies and decisions. Another is to post important speeches or make them available to journalists.

Martino noted that more advisory committee meetings and public hearings will be held at a news conference facility at FDA's White Oak headquarters, and that these will be available via webcast in most cases. Jill Wechsler proposed that FDA indicate which press officer is covering a particular advisory committee meeting or other public meeting to help reporters know where to go with questions. This will be particularly helpful for journalists covering FDA activities via webcast or from other locations.

In response to Joyce Frieden's query about late Friday afternoon press releases and too little advance notice for some press briefings, FDA staff explained that some product approvals come late in the day to meet a deadline, and FDA wants to provide relevant information before the company send out a press release. Similarly, FDA often has to schedule a press briefing very quickly when a new announcement is imminent.

Martino noted that in addition to the press office and media relations, FDA's Public Affairs office also manages FDA's website. The parallel Office of External Relations oversees consumer and industry outreach efforts, and an Office of Special Health Issues links up with patient advocates and health professional organizations. FDA's drug center and others have small communications operations that assist trade press primarily. However, there is no specific press officer assigned to the devices division.

The perennial problem came up of big delays in responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from the press. FDA receives about 10,000 FOIA requests a year, and continues efforts to whittle down the request backlog, which now amounts to about 4,000 pending queries. The agency hopes to make the process more efficient by providing an online form to file requests and a system for tracking inquiries. Ultimately, said Martino, the solution lies in FDA being more transparent and releasing more documents backing up agency decisions, which could reduce the need for FOIA requests in the first place.