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Science PR: it’s a bit more complicated than you think

Fiona Fox

At a recent debate that I chaired, one speaker asserted that generally journalists seek truth and public relations officers peddle lies. It seems that PRs have not been very good at their own PR. But PR officers, like journalists, are a mixed bag. This is why it was so disappointing to read a disparaging generalisation about university PR officers in the previous Research Fortnight [see RF 27/7/11, p2 via link below].

The editorial, subtitled “A victory for the forces of public relations”, was about the BBC Trust’s new review of science coverage. Endorsing criticisms by Imperial College London in a content analysis accompanying the review, Research Fortnight lamented BBC science journalists’ tendency to blindly celebrate scientific findings while failing to probe context or explain uncertainties: “The nation’s broadcaster seems to have become the department of public affairs for individual scientists who want to get noticed.” The leader concluded that the one group waving in the wings would be university PR officers, whose “whole point” is to “ensure that a new discovery or novel finding is communicated in the media without being challenged or questioned”.

It is spectacularly unfair to suggest that “the whole point” of university research communications officers is to get their science out there “without being challenged or questioned” or that they benefit from a report which is good news for publicity-hungry academics but bad news for the public understanding of science.

Many university press officers approach the Science Media Centre to run press briefings because they think a particular piece of research so complex and laden with caveats that it needs to be fully examined by the media rather than just summarised in a press release. They persuade three or four academics to give up their time to sit before 20 national news journalists and answer questions about their work. Many spend weeks taking academics through the likely ways the national news media might misreport, hype or take their study out of context, helping the scientists to avoid precisely these outcomes. Many submit embargoed press releases to the centre to allow us to solicit third-party experts’ views before publication, precisely because they worry that the media may not ask tough questions or point out weaknesses as leading scientists will.

Of course university press officers want good coverage for their academics’ papers, but I never met a single science press officer who issues press releases and prays the phone never rings. Science press officers like taking questions from science journalists and many university press officers now encourage academics to use blogs, twitter and online comment facilities to encourage challenges, questioning, debate and discussion. Many of them gave up research careers to pursue a passion for science communication. All the ones I know share the view that the media are still not good enough at communicating the complex and messy process of science.

The leader also assumes that research press officers do little but promote beautifully crafted, peer-reviewed studies on new breakthroughs. But what about the press officers at the University of Oxford who spent years persuading reluctant university authorities to open up their animal research facilities to the media, despite a history of violent attacks from animal rights extremists? What about the Imperial College London press officer who spent her weekends and evenings supporting David Nutt after he was sacked as drugs adviser by the Home Secretary? What about the University of East Anglia press officers who managed the fallout from ‘climate-gate’ for over a year while the world sat in judgment on their media-relations strategy?

Even a story that does arise from a new paper is often a far cry from the PR puff for media tarts that Research Fortnight implies. Consider the University of Bath researcher who first demonstrated in lab animals that a common anti-acne drug was linked with depression; or the Edinburgh scientist who discovered nanoparticles have asbestos-like effects in the lungs of rats; or the researchers from Cambridge and UEA who discovered the serious risks for the elderly of taking certain prescription drugs together. Without sustained efforts by university press officers, these may never have seen the light of day.

Research Fortnight should be congratulated for examining PR’s role in science—too many commentators on science and the media barely acknowledge we exist. But to lump all science press officers together and label us uniformly “part of the problem” of modern journalism oversimplifies and demonises the role of a large, intelligent and engaged community. As you will hear in the take-home message of countless Science Media Centre briefings and indeed many university press releases: it’s more complicated than that.

Editor Ehsan Masood will reply in the next issue.

Fiona Fox is chief executive of the Science Media Centre.