BIO Board Member: Biotech’s voice needs to get louder – and clearer

Misinformation. Not COVID. Not heart disease. Not cancer. Misinformation. That’s what the Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently declared the leading cause of death in this country.

Dr. Robert Califf dropped that sobering bombshell during a one-on-one conversation with Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) President and CEO Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath at the BIO International Convention last month.

So, right now, internet-based and social-media-fueled myths and malarkey—or, as former Attorney General Bill Barr might call it more bluntly, “bullshit”—are killing more people in the U.S. than the usual deadly suspects.

To help combat this often-lethal lack of fact-driven information, BIO is focusing on being the voice of science and for science. That refrain is music to the ears of someone like me, a former TV journalist working with hundreds of the most influential voices in the biotech sector.

But if we are going to ultimately be all about good science, technology, ingenuity, rigor, and data, our collective voice has to get louder—and clearer.

We have myriad ways to turn up the volume: Blogs, media interviews, TikTok and YouTube videos, newspaper and online media thought pieces, open letters, print ads, commercials, tweets, LinkedIn posts, and on and on.

And while these channels can make our voices heard, our messaging isn’t breaking through the noise as much as it should. Instead, we remain stuck in a never-ending feedback loop, shouting into an echo chamber. As a result, we’re primarily reaching, and preaching to, the proverbial choir.

‘If we want people to trust what we’re saying, they have to understand what we’re saying’

I don’t claim to have the gospel on how to break through. If I did, I wouldn’t be writing this piece. However, I do know that one essential part of the solution has to be changing the way the biotech sector communicates.

We need to recognize that our words have consequences. For way too long, most companies have been choosing the wrong verbiage. And too often, we rely on jargon, abbreviations, acronyms, and six-syllable words that few people outside of the life sciences community can comprehend. And it hasn’t helped us advance one bit.

The good news is biotechnology is increasingly sophisticated, offering the hope of more and more advances in science, tech, and health. The bad news is we do a mostly terrible job of explaining those added-on complexities in ways lay people can appreciate. So, if we want to win converts, we must get better at making the science and the tech comprehensible.

In short, if we want people to trust what we’re saying, they have to be able to understand what we’re saying.

On top of all that, Wall Street lingo years ago overtook a lot of the biotech narrative. I get that investment capital is the mother’s milk of biotech. That is abundantly clear in the current environment. But corporate stories are too often told in shareholder terms. Instead, we should be telling our stories through the prism of maladies, patients, their families, loved ones, caregivers, physicians, healthcare providers, hospital systems, and government entities.

I am not so naive to believe that a marked shift in semantics is singlehandedly going to bring an end to the epidemic of nonsense. And as a newly elected member of the BIO Board of Directors, I look forward to working with fellow Board members, BIO staff, and BIO members to uncover and execute new ideas and approaches to help fix the current situation.

Unfortunately, the onslaught of misinformation is relentless—and as the FDA Commissioner said, it’s also deadly. But we can fortify our position by readying a sector-wide phalanx of plain-talking biotech communicators and champions.

Mike Huckman, a member of the BIO Board of Directors, Emerging Companies Section, is Global Practice Leader, Executive Communications, at Real Chemistry. From 2000-2010, he was the Pharmaceuticals Reporter at CNBC.

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