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Public Affairs Specialists: On the FDA's Front Line
The Food and Drug Administration's field Public Affairs Specialists (PASs) work within their local communities to promote and protect the public health. They educate and inform a diverse public about the proper use of FDA-regulated products and related health issues. They provide the public with information that enhances well-being and decreases the risks of illness, injury, disease, or death.
These PASs primarily focus their outreach on consumers within their communities. Their audience includes not only the general public, but also traditionally underserved populations such as women, seniors, and ethnic communities. They are often in community meeting halls, academic and hospital auditoriums, and consumer conferences to deliver their important public health message.
Their reach is extensive. Last year, the PASs reached more than 2 million people, including health professionals and students, government and industry representatives, and members of community groups and faith-based organizations through outreach and educational programs, workshops, conferences, exhibits, and speeches.
They reach a larger audience still, as on a daily basis they communicate the FDA story to the print and electronic news media.
Reaching out to the public sometimes means staying in the office to field phone calls, answer letters, and e-mails. PASs hear the anger, frustration, and even despair of individual consumers, but they know a sympathetic ear and a tailored explanation make a difference.
In addition to serving as educators, PASs are networkers, recruiters, and trainers. PASs maximize their public outreach by developing "train the trainer" programs, participating in media events, and partnering with local municipalities, health care professionals, and community-based grassroots organizations to extend their reach and provide information to larger audiences.
PASs not only talk with consumers, they listen too. PASs take the pulse of the public, reporting consumer concerns to agency management. This feedback guides future FDA programs. Messages are better targeted to consumer concerns. Agency decisions are responsive to developing public health policy.
Fifty years ago, consumer consultants fielded questions about food, nutrition, and drugs. These are still the main areas of concern today. But today the inquiries may include concerns about biotechnology, fears about "mad cow" disease, or questions about the legality of importing medications from Canada.
Today, PASs must continually learn and adapt to the ever-changing scientific products regulated by the FDA. Today, these include foods, drugs, cosmetics, radiation-emitting products, medical devices, blood products, biologics, and veterinary products. As new issues develop, PASs must remain ready to accurately and confidently address the concerns of consumers.
This dedicated team finds members from a variety of professional backgrounds. Traditionally, the PASs came with a background in home economics. Today the ranks include dietitians, journalists, former FDA investigators, and public affairs professionals from other agencies. Recently, the team celebrated the 50th anniversary of the FDA Public Affairs Specialist position.
Though the world of public health has become more complex, the consumer audience more diverse, the means of communication faster and more varied, and the backgrounds of the PASs broader, today's Public Affairs Specialists remain dedicated to serving as a critical link between the public and the agency.
How to Contact a Public Affairs Specialist
Anyone seeking information about the FDA and the products it regulates can find a Public Affairs Specialist in their area by looking up the phone number in the telephone directory of the nearest large city. Look for the Food and Drug Administration under the Department of Health and Human Services in the blue U.S. Government section to find the nearest FDA district office. Or check the FDA's Web site at: