Universities (and other research organisations) all over the world increasingly realise that effective communication of science and research achievements contributes significantly to academic prestige, institutional reputation and interest from potential funding partners and prospective collaborators and students. Consequently, universities are investing more heavily than ever before in research communication specialists who can help their research staff to achieve and sustain a high media profile.
Science promotion is persuasive communication aimed at convincing people to accept and support science. In public science engagement, the emphasis shifts to embedding science in society and getting people across all socio-economic groupings to engage with science and its impact on their lives.
“The term ‘science public relations” got me thinking about how we could achieve closer links and collaboration between our university’s research office, with its science communication unit, and the public relations office. I suspect that on many campuses these units operate rather separately.” Heather Ndlovu, lecturer and research uptake manager at the National University of Science and Technology, Zimbabwe
Science information coming from research organisations is, by nature, “interested” information (information with a specific agenda). It does not necessarily mean that it is not credible, but it is provided by people inside the organisation (i.e. the research communicators), whose job it is to promote science (and scientific achievement) to the outside world. Unfortunately, some press releases overstate the significance of scientific findings in an effort to attract news coverage, resulting in an erosion of trust over time. A reputable research communicator does not issue such press releases. It is important to provide quality information consistently so that you build your reputation with the media as being a reliable, professional contributor.
Researchers who study the interface between scientists and the mass media caution that in an era of increased pressure on scientists to attract media coverage, scientists and science itself may become media-orientated and the anticipation of how the media will respond may influence the research process and the framing of research results. The concern is that this so-called ‘medialisation’ of science could impact the objectivity and credibility of science and knowledge production and have negative repercussions for the process of science itself.
While we may strive to improve the relationships between scientists and media, we must also keep in mind that it is not the job of journalists to keep scientists happy, but rather to serve their readers, listeners and viewers. Society needs strong (i.e. analytical, critical and confident) science journalists to hold science (and scientists) accountable and to counterbalance the increasingly strategic orientation of scientists toward the media. There is reason for concern when universities put too much pressure on scientists to achieve media visibility, or when scientists are able to control and exploit journalists to serve their own desire for publicity.
“The fundamental question to ask is does it aim to advance the public good? This is the guide that we use in our office every day, regardless of what it is called.” Shirona Patel, communication manager at the University of the Witwatersrand
The September 2014 issue of the Journal of Science Communicationfocuses on the debate about whether the kind of science/research communication practiced at universities should rather be seen as science PR, and asks the question: “Is science communication almost always a form of PR?”. There is much food for thought for university press officers, as well as for science journalists in the following contributions.
Based on his experience as reporter and public information officer, Matt Shipman makes a strong case for media coverage of research. In addition to making science news known to the broad society, he argues that it can aid discovery of scientific findings within the research community. Shipman believes that as long as science public relations are done responsibly – not exaggerated – they can bolster public interest, trust and support for research funding. He reminds us of the value of science blogs, feature articles and similar communication tools to attract young people to science careers.
Charlotte Autzen, a communication specialist at the University of Copenhagen, provides evidence that media coverage is linked to academic prestige: highly-ranked universities issue the most science press releases and get more media attention. Contrasting the roles of press officers and journalists, she argues that press officers are excellent at producing science press releases that explain the relevance of new research findings, while science journalists need to play the role of watchdog and critic. Acknowledging the growing pressures on news media to produce more and more news with fewer resources, Autzen maintains that there is nothing wrong with media outlets using press releases from trustworthy academic institutions and presenting them as news. She points out that these press releases are mostly based on single scientific papers and serve as catalysts for science media coverage. Science journalists, she says, have a much bigger job to do: they should take a closer look at research institutions and ask critical questions about research priorities, focus areas and financing.
In her contribution Dr Emma Weitkamp, associate professor in science communication at the University of West England, expresses concern about the increasing reliance of science journalists on public relations sources. While she agrees with Autzen that press officers – often former journalists themselves – have the skill to write these stories, she is not comfortable with the copy-paste approach where research institutes’ press releases end up as news. She points out that universities are, after all, self-interested organisations that seek to promote their own agendas, adding that their press releases are framed to suit the organisation. She advises journalists to read these press releases carefully and to treat them with caution.
Communicating via a press release is not genuine communication, writes Michel Claessens, who teaches science communication at the Free University in Brussels. He feels that real communication involves dialogue – something that is almost absent from institutional research communication – and pleads for better communication training of researchers and opportunities to participate in public engagement activities such as consensus conferences.
Frank Marcinkowski and Matthias Kohring, both professors in science communication at German universities, also favour more focus on the lay public and less on media. They take issue with institutionalised “push” communication and the so-called “medialisation” of academic institutions where universities simply cannot get enough publicity. They argue that this kind of communication – focused on getting public attention – may actually threaten the autonomy of scientific research. They are concerned that the desire for media visibility may cause researchers to choose topics purely on the basis of their potential for media attention and popularity.
“The single most important thing to keep in mind when writing is to be honest. If you want reporters to trust you and take you seriously, you should never overhype research findings. It’s fine to present the work in the best light possible, as long as you’re telling the truth. But if you mislead your readers, you will lose their trust. Once you’ve lost your credibility, reporters won’t want to work with you – and that will make it virtually impossible for you to do your job.” Matt Shipman, public information officer at North Carolina State University, USA (From: “Handbook for Science Public Information Officers”1)
1 Shipman, WM. 2015. Handbook for science public information officers. The University of Chicago Press.
What is the primary goal driving research communication at your university? Is it institutional reputation building (ie about the “brand”) or is it about making research more accessible to the communities you serve? Both of these are legitimate goals. If you have to achieve both, you have to make sure that you achieve a balance so that one of these goals do not dominate (or obliterate) the other.
“Researchers communicators should be objective and neutral when reporting on research. They should not ‘take sides’, especially when dealing with controversial topics.” Prof Sunita Fracknath, dean at the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Mauritius