Another Clueless Board of Directors – PCRM

Posted on August 11, 2009. Filed under: Leadership, Non-profits |

Obama’s Kids – Out of Bounds – Where Was the PCRM Board?

The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) just started a new advertising campaign aimed at the fact that most school lunches in the country do not have vegetarian or vegan choices. You may agree or disagree about the validity of a vegetarian diet for growing children, so what’s the big deal? The issue is that PCRM –without asking permission – uses President Obama’s daughters in the advertisement. The posters have a picture of a little girl (she looks about eight to nine years old) asking the question “President Obama’s daughters get healthy school lunches. Why don’t I?”

In a front-page story in the August 11th Washington Post about the issue, the article states that PCRM President Neal Barnard, as believing that “the objection comes solely from the president’s “handlers” (a.k.a. Associate White House Counsel Karen Dunn and Deputy Associate Counsel Ian Bassin) and “not from the first family itself.” Barnard then adds: “I was not about to pull the ads. They’re important, and they’re good, and they raise the issue, speaking for kids in America. And I’m not about to have them shut me up because they’re nervous.”

WRONG, Mr. Barnard! The President’s kids are off limits, and have always been off limits for commercial, or in this case, non-profit gain. That’s one area where regardless of party, most people would agree that the Presidents who have had younger children in the White House have done a good job of raising good, decent citizens (including Presidents Nixon, Carter, Clinton, George W. Bush, and now President Obama).

BTW, here’s a clue for uninitiated, if the White House calls and says “there is an objection to what you’re doing” you really should listen. Remember, Washington is the only town where buildings speak (White House says, Pentagon says, etc.) but that doesn’t mean that they are not accurately representing the position of the leaders in the building.

Where was the Board of Directors? I can’t imagine that anyone with a lick of common sense would have approved this ad. Here’s my prediction, there will be a firestorm of criticism, which is deserved, and their true agenda will be eclipsed by this truly stupid decision.


Bill Huddleston

P.S. BTW, my daughter is a celiac, (can’t have wheat) so school lunches are off limits to her as well. Our solution – she brings a bag lunch. It works, and works fine. I don’t think I should try and force the school system to have a gluten free menu, there are too few kids, and it would be too expensive from a budgetary standpoint.

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9 Responses to “Another Clueless Board of Directors – PCRM”

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Several things are wrong with this, not the least of which was the unethical use of President Obama’s children. With all due respect, however, I disagree that Boards of Directors should be approving ads. This is meddling in the means and not focused on what the organization achieves. As we can see from this example, means to the end must always be limited by policy and monitored.

The Board should be focused on the direction of the organization and setting boundaries. What makes this Board “clueless” is one of two things: Either the Board did not have appropriate policies in place or they were not monitoring their own policies.

Boards of Directors should have policies limiting the actions (means) of the staff. While the Board may not have been able to foresee this particular very public ethical violation, a policy that prohibits any practice, activity, decision, or organizational circumstance that is either unlawful, imprudent, or in violation of commonly accepted business and professional ethics should have been in place.

Violation of policy by the chief staff officer is cause for dismissal. Any reasonable person who valued his or her job would not have committed this ethical violation.

In this case it looks like the board leadership is also the operational leadership. Can’t tell if Mr. Barnard ran it by the “Advisory Board” or the rest of the Board of Directors or not:

Founded in 1985, PCRM is a nonprofit organization supported by physicians and laypersons who receive Good Medicine each quarter. PCRM programs combine the efforts of medical experts and grassroots individuals.

PCRM Board of Directors: Neal D. Barnard, M.D., President; Mark Sklar, M.D., Director; Russell Bunai, M.D., Treasurer and Secretary.

PCRM’s advisory board includes 11 health care professionals from a broad range of specialties:

T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D. Cornell University
Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., M.D. The Cleveland Clinic
Suzanne Havala Hobbs, Dr.PH., M.S., R.D. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Henry J. Heimlich, M.D., Sc.D. The Heimlich Institute
Lawrence Kushi, Sc.D. Division of Research, Kaiser Permanente
Virginia Messina, M.P.H., R.D. Nutrition Matters, Inc.
John McDougall, M.D. McDougall Program, St. Helena Hospital
Milton Mills, M.D. Gilead Medical Group
Myriam Parham, R.D., L.D., C.D.E. East Pasco Medical Center
William Roberts, M.D. Baylor Cardiovascular Institute
Andrew Weil, M.D. University of Arizona

In any case, the Board as a whole is responsible unless they specifically delegated authority to Barnard to act on their behalf. If they did so without proscribing what was acceptable and what was not, shame on them.


We live in a transparent age and culture where media, sound bites, and spin sometimes uncomfortably co-exist with privacy, propriety and good taste.

PCRM and Neal Barnard are perfectly within their rights to use the symbol of the presidential children in whatever way they choose. As long as the children are not personally endorsing anything, how can anyone reasonably say their use is off limits?

They’re metaphors. Metaphors for a privileged class. Metaphors that attend private schools, get paraded for the media when deemed necessary, get leveraged to support the Obama Brand, and get protected by well-meaning supporters and detractors who apparently don’t think but prefer knee-jerk reaction instead.


Dr. Barnard did not use the Obama children for anything. He used their recognized referent position – their power base as metaphors – to state a case. Agree or disagree with PCRM’s mission – healthy food, non-cruelty to animals – declaring the children “off limits” is inconsistent with other more notable metaphorical practitioners’ uses: like the Democratic National Committee, who parades the Obama family around at will to endorse this week’s important family issue. Or NBC News who uses the family to offer a warmer, more humanitarian face to the legacy of yet another successful politician.

Get a grip, folks. If the white House children were off limits, then we wouldn’t have the annual Easter Egg Roll, or the Kennedy Center Honors, or Bill Maher.

Secondly, about the controversy on whether the Board should be involved in the advertising message: “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.” Good advertising typically can’t survive the scrutiny of a committee with the power to make it “better.”

Based on the fecal storm this one has caused, it’s a great ad!

Actually, I did think about this decision by PCRM, which is wrong on a multitude of counts:

1. You don’t use someone else kids to further your non-profit agenda, and I don’t care if they are in the public eye or not. This is just wrong, and this is not a new issue in political Washington, so PCRM definitely got this one wrong. I am a parent, and believe me, millions of parents will have the same position.

2. Politics 101 – If you’re trying to generate support for a public policy position, pissing off the White House is not a good strategy.

3. It will take a year to see if this comes true, but my prediction is that their financial support will suffer. They currently get 94% of their $14 million dollar budget from individuals, so we’ll see over the next 12 to 18 months what impact the publicity actually had.

I am curious as to what discussions, if any, Dr. Barnard had with the Board or staff about what the goal of the campaign was. It’s pretty obvious no one in the room said,

“But, wait, what if it doesn’t generate the positive publicity you think it will?”
“What are the potential downsides to using the President Obama’s children in an ad the White House hasn’t seen, hasn’t approved, and is about an issue where there are no public statements from them?”

The optics on this one stink and it doesn’t take much to see that.

Well said, Bill. I am a parent, too, and as one of the millions you call to your side of the argument, I couldn’t disagree more.

First, I assume all the African children used for Catholic Charities or the 700 Club signed releases etc. etc. When DID not-for-profits stop using someone else’s children for their financial gain?

Secondly, great PR is always a risk…you tread close enough to the edge to scare people – yourself included. That’s why the legacy of barrels over Niagara and tightrope walkers on the World Trade Center. Come to think of it, pissing off the White House has a pretty strong track record – Watergate, Valerie Plame, The Pentagon Papers, Monica Lewinsky, Viet Nam, the Cuban Missile Crisis and many more. Sometimes, pissing someone important off is the ONLY way to get the attention you think your cause deserves.

Third, I’ll bet you lunch that PCRM sees a bump in 18 months, not a depression. Based on recent health findings, the vegetarian/vegan folks are on to something. Eating hormone-laced animal products is detrimental to health; cruelty to animals is detrimental to human dignity.

I’m not sure how optics can stink, but Dr. Barnard’s motives and vision are pretty clear: grasp for attention and then leverage support from the consequences. As far as the sanctimonious declaration that leveraging children is “just wrong,” spare me. It happens every time your church drums up support for the Little League.

Excellent site, keep up the good work

Hi, just stumbled across this place on Google. Nice to be here.

Great, thanks.

Bill Huddleston
The CFC Coach

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