The value of PR

An online opinion, published on the Laboratory News website (Cut out the media middle-man), prompted us to think about dealing with the media and the value that PR offers anyone with a story to tell.

The article in Laboratory News discusses the relationship between science and the mass media, bemoaning the fat that science is often sensationalised for the sake of a headline and that it is not taken seriously. It ends with a comment which suggests that science ignores the mass media when trying to get its message to the public.

But would such an approach really benefit scientists and the scientific community as a whole, and has science brought some of this upon itself?

The simple answers are ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

Taking the ‘no’ part first: Science has been happy to use the media for its own benefits over the years, whether to attract investment in new technologies, enhance the image of an organisation, increase interest in particular topics or, dare we say it, sell pharmaceutical products. It can hardly complain when the media occasionally gets things wrong by failing to present a story to the satisfaction of a scientist, sensationalising certain aspects to attract the attention of readers, viewers and listeners or take things out of context.

As for the ‘yes’, if the science community were to ignore the mass media, how else would it get its message to the public as effectively? Certainly the case could be made that the internet and social media offers the opportunity to exert more control over the initial message, but ultimately, if science needs to reach the public, it has to put its messages into the public domain, not hide them behind password-protected registrations. Once there, the information is available to everyone, including the mass media, and open to any sort of interpretation.

Surely a better approach is to ensure that the message is prepared and delivered in a manner that is appropriate for the target audience at which it is aimed and at a time which suits the scientist or scientific organisation? This is where a skilled PR department, or external consultant, can deliver real benefits. By implementing a carefully planned PR strategy, the PR practitioner will ensure that the right message gets to the right target audience in the right way and at the right time.

Not all scientists are great communicators and not all journalists are great scientists, but by sifting through the science and selecting those aspects of the story which have relevance to the target audience, whilst at the same time recognising the objectives for releasing the story, the message can be disseminated and perceived to everyone’s satisfaction. Many of the risks of misrepresentation, a story being taken out of context and inconvenient timing will be spotted and averted before the story is released and there will always be a point of contact with whom the media can verify or expand on the information presented.

This might mean that a story is written in different ways to suit different target audiences – there is little point in presenting a scientific paper for peer review to a red-top audience (with respect!) – or that the scientific paper is released to peer-reviewed publications well before the (simplified) story is released to the general public, but this is what good PR management is about.