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The TGA and its media relations: what a job

As foreshadowed at Croakey last year, the media liaison/issues management contract for the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is up for grabs, and details of the tender document are outlined below. The contract of the current provider, McNiece Communications, expires next month.

As the Department of Health and Ageing has previously advised, the contract was worth $266,992 in 2008/2009, and up until April for the financial year 2009/10 was worth $223,828 (for more details, see my comment on the bottom of this 2010 Crikey story.)

According to a briefing paper prepared by the TGA for a panel now investigating ways of improving the agency’s transparency (which can be downloaded here), Kay McNiece and colleagues handled around 300 media inquiries for the TGA in 2009-10. The tender document estimates the TGA receives an average of about 45 media enquiries each month, although this number may spike when there’s a hot news event.

The tender closes this Friday, which must make it rather difficult for applicants as the document says the contractor will be “an integral component of the TGA’s overall aim to increase transparency of its operations”. But the recommendations of the transparency review won’t be reported to the Minister until the end of June.

The TGA comms is not a job for the faint hearted, for a variety of reasons.

For starters, relations between TGA comms and journalists could do with some repair work.

Towards the bottom of this post you can read one journalist’s frustrated perspective. Having spoken to a number of colleagues about this issue in recent months, I can vouch that the sentiments expressed are not uncommon.

It is also telling that this journalist – like many who interact with Kay McNiece and colleagues – doesn’t want to be publicly identified. (For more background, see this Croakey-led submission to the transparency review.)

As well as the challenges of juggling the often competing demands of journalists and bureaucratic and political masters, the TGA comms agency has to operate in a complex policy and regulatory environment, which is summarised in the TGA’s briefing paper. In addition the TGA is in the thick of an ongoing reform process. And there is no shortage of public critics.

Then there’s the difficulty of working in a media world that often opts for the simple grab rather than the challenge of attempting to communicate complexity.

In googling the TGA and McNiece Communications, I came across a paper, A challenging communications environment: Public information and Pan Pharmaceuticals, presented by Gwilym Croucher from the University of Melbourne at a 2009 Australian Political Studies Association Conference (I can provide a copy to any readers who leave their details below).

The paper describes the difficulty the TGA faced in trying to communicate to the public during the Pan Pharmaceutical fiasco in 2003, which was at the time the largest therapeutic recall of its kind, and turned into a legal nightmare for all concerned.

The paper’s analysis of media coverage of Pan suggested that “while the TGA was the dominant source of authority in the reporting, it did not seem to be able to influence significantly the news agenda”.

The paper suggests that the Government and the TGA could have done better to ensure that the media reportage recognised the distinction between the medical, industry and equity issues raised by the case.

An extract:

This case provides evidence that governments are finding it harder to cope with more channels of communication. Moreover, that attempts at comprehensive media management in even mundane information provision can prove ineffective…. The case provides evidence that governments are finding it harder to cope with competing media messages and that attempts at comprehensive media-management face increasing difficulties.

Given all this, it’s a shame the TGA’s tender document doesn’t canvass the potential of new communication channels and the Gov 2.0 agenda to help address some of these issues, and to foster the development of more constructive relationships between the TGA, media and broader audiences. But perhaps these matters will be addressed in the report from the transparency review.

What the TGA wants from its PR agency

Below is a summary of the tender document (I figure it’s worth reproducing in some detail as it gives insights into the role of modern media relations and the expectations of government agencies).

Tendering organisations will need to provide evidence of:

(a) previous experience in journalism and management of sensitive media issues; and

(b) an understanding and appreciation of, and experience with, media issues related to therapeutic goods.

The successful tenderer will be required to have, or to establish, a team located in Canberra to be the first point of contact for all media enquiries and issues for the TGA.

The principal purpose of the Services is to ensure that the Australian public is adequately and appropriately informed through the Australian media about the quality, safety and effectiveness of therapeutic goods available in Australia and the role of the TGA in protecting public health and safety.

The Services will assist in informing consumers, health professionals and the regulated industry to further their understanding of the role, goals and objectives of the TGA. The Services are an integral component of the TGA’s overall aim to increase transparency of its operations.

The successful tenderer will be required to communicate, on behalf of TGA, when required and as directed by the TGA Executive the following:

·         the decisions of TGA, providing any necessary explanations to ensure that the reasons for the actions or changes are understood; and

·         explanations for the regulatory responses to issues of safety and quality of products.

More specifically, the successful tenderer must provide “hot issues” and general media management services to the TGA by:

·         developing protocols for the strategic handling of media issues of concern to key stakeholders;

·         responding to, when directed and in consultation with the TGA Executive, inaccuracies and distortions in media reporting;

·         being the first point of contact for all media enquiries and responding to these enquiries in a timely manner;

·         preparing and distributing TGA media releases;

·         undertaking daily media monitoring and providing media analysis reports to the TGA; particularly following major episodes of media interest, and/or anticipating media issues;

·         providing media liaison and issues management for all TGA Advisory Committees, when required;

·         providing necessary support for TGA staff attending media interviews

·         attending all interviews with media that involve TGA staff

·         developing communication strategies for specific media issues, when required

·         preparing speeches for the TGA, the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary, when required

·         assisting in the development of Fact/Information Sheets/Question and Answer Sheets for the TGA on critical or emerging health issues.

·         providing reports on media enquiries and progress of current activities to TGA as outlined in this RFT.

The successful tenderer must be available to deal with urgent media enquiries and issues outside of normal office hours.

The successful tenderer may also be required to, either as a result of a request from the TGA Executive or Ministers’/Parliamentary Secretary’s Offices: ·

·         Develop media briefing packs.

·         Cultivate relationships with reporters specialising in the field of activity aligned to TGA activity in order to encourage balanced and responsible reporting by facilitating, through the TGA Executive, the provision of current information on specific issues.

·         On invitation, actively participate in meetings with the TGA Executive in relation to designated media liaison and associated plans and activities.

On a weekly basis, if requested by the TGA, dot points outlining the responses to named journalists and media outlets for inclusion in a report to the TGA Executive and Office Heads.

On a monthly basis submitted with the contractor’s invoice a written summary report to be used for reporting to the TGA Executive addressing the provision of Services and activities by the contractor’s personnel.

When a request is made by a member of the TGA Executive the successful tenderer must produce a media analysis report following major episodes of media interest.

***

One journalist’s cry of frustration

The journalist who wrote this piece below, after seeing a recent Financial Review story about the tender, asked to remain anonymous. I can assure Croakey readers of this person’s bona fides.

Anonymous writes:

There is a story buried on page 60 of the Financial Review last Friday that will be of interest to any journalist who has ever had dealings with the TGA.

It’s the big news that the tender for the job of  “TGA media liaison” is out. It answers some of the questions that many journalists often have following a skirmish with Australia’s chief drug regulator:

Why does it take so long to get a response telling you that your questions can only be answered next week after your deadline?

Why does every question asked has to be submitted in email form, just how busy is the media unit?

And most importantly of all, why can’t you ever get to speak to a member of the TGA staff direct?

Well the reason  – according to the Fin Review – is that the TGA answers “up to 45 media inquiries a month”.

And those calls can come in the form that demands an “urgent out of hours response”.

First point – 45 calls a month – or from my own back of the envelope calculations two calls a working day – seems to falls somewhat short of the throughput of your average Indian call centre.

Second point – for many of us journalists, an urgent out of hour’s response from the TGA has been as remote as an urgent out of body experience. It’s never happened.

The other big responsibility of the TGA role is responding to “inaccuracies and distortions in media reporting”.

I like the line because I now realise that TGA media liaison can be a form of job creation that could become a carbon neutral alternative to the mining boom.

It is based on the link between the time you spend responding to “inaccuracies and distortions” in the media and the time you didn’t spend answering the questions you were asked a week before by journalists in the first place.

This may come as a shock to senior staff in the TGA – but most journalists, especially those dealing with the often-mundane world of therapeutic goods regulation don’t have an incentive to get stuff wrong.

Finally this job role is about cultivating specialist health reporters to “encourage balance and responsible reporting” as well as attending media interviews with TGA staff.

If “cultivating,” means writing irrelevant responses to those emailed questions – then the TGA scores top marks already. I don’t think there is any room for improvement there.

Getting an interview with a TGA member of staff has been only slightly harder that getting an interview with Osama Bin Laden – both before and after he was shot dead by special forces.

OK, Four Corners succeeded with its world exclusive interview with the TGA’s Rohan Hammett last Monday night but, as anyone watching the show on the dodgy ASR hip replacements would have seen, for some reason the country’s premier investigative TV program’s attempt to get him to justify why the devices were sanctioned for use in Australia without undergoing any mandatory independent clinical trials on their safety was rubbish.

But then securing such outcomes is probably the most important bit of the job description the Fin Review article does not mention.

• Croakey will seek TGA responses to this and other recent posts:

• More fire for the TGA over complementary medicines

• Consumer groups sounds alarm over regulation of complementary medicines

Update: From ABC broadcaster Joel Werner via Twitter:


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