Celebrity speaker creates a stir, but represents major risk

October 29, 2010

The RSNA has pulled off a giant publicity coup by signing up former U.S. president Bill Clinton to give a special address at its congress in Chicago later this month.

The RSNA has pulled off a giant publicity coup by signing up former U.S. president Bill Clinton to give a special address at its congress in Chicago later this month. However, the bold move may well backfire if he fails to include any real substance in his talk.

By early October, professional attendees had snapped up most of the 4250 tickets for the Clinton lecture, to be held in the Arie Crown Theater on the afternoon of Tuesday, Nov. 30. Non–ticket-holders can watch the lecture on a big screen in one of 10 overflow rooms at McCormick Place. Clearly the organizers anticipate huge interest and expect the meeting to grind to a virtual halt for an hour or so.

The prospect of a politician being given star billing at a top scientific congress is bound to raise eyebrows among the purists, but it has created a buzz, judging by the demand for tickets and the publicity generated by the announcement. A senior French radiologist has suggested-in private and probably with tongue in cheek-that the bosses of JFR (les Journées Françaises de Radiologie) should book their own celebrity speaker.

It will be fascinating to hear what Clinton has to say, although as a member of the news media, it's not clear I'll be able to do so. According to the RSNA, working members of the press will be banned from the theater and the overflow rooms and must wait for a report in the organization's own
publication.

It's unclear whether an abstract or outline will appear before the event, and even the title of his talk has not been revealed yet. The RSNA gives no further details on its website, merely stating that “as a powerful voice for progress around the world, President Clinton will address the RSNA audience.”

During his presidency, Clinton had a mixed record on healthcare. In 1993, he keenly promoted a universal healthcare plan, and his wife, Hillary, led a task force on the issue. Many insurers, doctors, business leaders, and Republicans strongly opposed the plan, which was officially shelved a year later. If he speaks openly about the lessons learned in the 1990s, and/or about how radiologists may fare in the current wave of reforms, then his message will be relevant. He said in a March 2009 interview with CNN that healthcare changes will be easier to implement now because there is greater consensus, and this suggests he may focus on the current reforms at RSNA 2010.

Clinton collected nearly $40 million in speaking fees between 2001 and 2006, and is typically paid around $150,000 per engagement, according to a Washington Post article from Feb. 23, 2007. His fee for the Chicago congress is being paid by an outside donor, and the terms are confidential, but Clinton (or his foundation) is likely to be rewarded handsomely for the lecture. Let's hope he's worth the hype.