by Cheryl K. Olson, Sc.D.

When I started consulting a few decades ago, I worked on a project that brought me to a room in General Motors headquarters in Michigan that was used for union negotiations. It seemed designed to elicit maximum distrust. The two opposing sides squared off across a massive wooden table with built-in shelves for hiding papers from each other under the cold, fluorescent lights. The tone of negotiations seemed pre-ordained by the design of the room.

Public health research, my home turf, seems like a very different field of play. But I’m struck by how often the interactions between regulators (government) and industry quickly slide into that oppositional, “us vs. them” model, with predictable results.

Not long ago, I helped a client prepare for a Tobacco Product Scientific Advisory Committee (TPSAC) hearing, seeking approval of a modified risk claim. Up to that point, TPSAC had yet to support a single product for that status (our claim later received the first all-positive vote). I decided to review transcripts of those previous unsuccessful presentations for clues as to what went wrong or right.

How an “us vs them” strategy fails

Certain things jumped out that helped guide our approach. Over and over, through their words and tone, the TPSAC panel members (mostly academic researchers and government public health practitioners) and the industry representatives displayed their perceptions of themselves as two warring tribes. Each had entrenched assumptions about, and occasionally disdain for, the other.

There was no trust between the two sides. The TPSAC panel seemed to view the applicants as Big Tobacco personified, invoking more than once that 1994 testimony by American tobacco company CEOs standing before Congress and denying the addictive properties of nicotine. With this as a touchpoint, all the industry research presented was highly suspect even when it was valid and reliable.

The applicants tended to treat the TPSAC panel members as a bureaucratic obstacle to be overcome. In several instances they made the mistake of having people from their marketing departments present the scientific data that supported their applications. These presenters frequently made matters worse for the applicants by using persuasive approaches and words common in marketing but anathema in science.

For example, no scientific researcher begins a summary of research results with the words, “We believe….” I cringed reading this, practically hearing the TPSAC panel members thinking, “Who cares what you believe? What does the data show?”

Similarly, several of the applicants tried to dance around the shortcomings of their studies, unfortunately creating an impression they had something to hide. No researcher expects perfection in a research protocol. The TPSAC panel would have liked to see the weaknesses in the supporting studies made explicit so that they could be addressed. One industry researcher who openly stated study limitations got a markedly warmer response; to the panel members, she felt like a colleague.

Going for the “win-win”

During mock hearings in preparation for our TPSAC presentations, we drew upon that information about past failures to develop what became a successful strategy.

We knew that our research data, while not perfect, solidly supported our modest claim. The real obstacle was not scientific, but emotional: to overcome the almost reflexive distrust of industry among panel members, compounded by expectations formed during their bouts with previous applicants to the panel.

Metaphorically, we wanted to abandon the type of room I had seen at GM headquarters many years ago, and sit collegially on the same side of the table as the TPSAC panel members. Our client’s team presented the research studies, warts and all, and raised implications and limitations. Concerns about any potential youth abuse of the product was discussed rather than downplayed–even though the data made it clear that, compared to other nicotine-containing products, there was little attraction for youth. In short, the team presented the data while presenting themselves not as slick industry persuaders, but as fellow scientists.

It worked.

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