In defence of (some) PR

7th August 2014

by Ed Sykes, Chair of Stempra and ‎Head of Mental Health & Neuroscience at Science Media Centre.

Journalism-bashing is a popular sport, there’s a whole army of websites set up to mock the media’s worst excesses and in many ways such websites are common because it’s so true. Yet whilst journalism is recognised as having the potential to be a force for good, to many PR is inherently evil. Anyone who considers the flaws in journalism recognises that despite there being a lot of dross in our papers and on our TVs there is also some fantastic work done by individuals who want to report accurately, who want to unearth the truth and who want to shine a light on the complexities of the issue of the day.

Why then does it seem foreign to so many people that the world of PR can be just as mixed? As eminent science blogger David Colquhoun tweeted just today “PR is paid lies and antithesis of sciencc [sic]” and “PR is NEVER valuable. It is fundamentally corrupt” and many would probably agree. But I argue that with our competitive 24-hour media landscape of churnalism and instant deadlines, responsible press officers can be our saviours.

I should declare up front that not only am I a press officer at the Science Media Centre but I am also chair of Stempra , an organisation of science, technology, engineering and medical press officers who care about our profession. We even have a guide to responsible PR that aims ‘to encourage better and more responsible practice, particularly when communicating issues in the public interest, and to help the public negotiate through often conflicting claims on issues such as vaccination, health foods and climate change.’

Why do we care? Well, a cynical reason might be because we are paid to protect the reputations of our organisations above all else. That means ensuring we don’t hype, issue non-evidence based comments or distort the science by cherry-picking the most newsworthy aspects. We know that if we do play dirty it will come back to bite us in the form of public criticism, losing the trust of respected journalists or receiving an inbox full of complaints from other scientists – and it will damage the reputations we’re paid to protect. A less cynical reason is that many of us simply care about accuracy – we have seen the damage caused by claims around MMR, miracle cures for cancer and fears over Fukushima. We are often the ones on the other end of the phone or email who receive requests from the public wanting to get their hands on a new super-pill or worried that their children are going to be brain-damaged. Being accurate and responsible is a self-serving stance to take.

In the world of PR, the press release is still king. At both a recent Stempra event and MRC Wellcome Press Officer Conference, specialist science and health journalists told us that the press release is still the best way to contact them – they receive hundreds every day, from businesses, charities, journals, research outlets and universities. Most go straight into the bin. But the press releases that don’t are the ones that come from respected outlets, from places that are known to have solid evidence for their claims and these are the ones that get reported.

At the Science Media Centre, I remember a senior journalist telling us that “you’re only as good as your last press briefing” and, whilst I hope that everyone is allowed the odd mistake, it reinforces just how much accuracy and trust is valued by journalists – the very people we have to work with. If we aren’t trusted, we can’t do our jobs. In fact, just next week Stempra is running an event with researchers who are trying to establish whether improving the accuracy of press releases by including caveats, limitations and context impacts the amount and accuracy of the resulting coverage. This research will mean press officers can have evidence-based conversations with peers and colleagues, rather than just relying on received wisdom.

But why do we need press officers at all? Why can’t journalists get on with the job without us? Well the truth is that bad press officers are ignored and circumvented but as any journalist will tell you, a good press officer is worth their weight in gold. Journalists are under ridiculous pressures to bang out multiple stories per day: finding them, summarising twenty years of research into a few hundred words and getting comments from independent experts, all within a matter of hours. They are expected to be on top of everything from Ebola to electronic patient records or stem cells to solar storms. And they can’t. No journalist has a black book big enough or knows the best person on any given question or knows whether they’re available or happy to comment. The best press officers know their experts inside out, have earned their trust, and are able to convince scientists that they should be taking time out of their busy schedule to explain to journalists why they should or shouldn’t be covering a particular story, point out any holes in the research, or explain why everyone should be paying attention.

The very best press officers don’t stop at simply knowing their experts though; they are also the ones who stand up to their own organisations. There are times when they need to calm down their colleagues and employers, explaining why certain language will lead to hyping in the press and raised false hopes amongst the public. Yes, as David Colquhoun put it, “PR means people are paid to put a particular point of view”, but if they work for a scientific organisation that view should be the one that belongs to their scientists, the experts, and takes the latest evidence into account. There are also occasions when it’s up to the press officer to push the organisation to speak out on controversial issues (such as climate change, the use of animals in research, fracking or GM crops), because if no-one speaks then the whole of science, and public understanding, suffers as a result.

The question for me is not can we reign in the media beast, or how do we do away with press officers, or how do we stop journalists from relying on them, or even whether press officers are or aren’t a force for evil – instead it is how do we ensure that all PR professionals work to the very highest standards and keep to an ethical and professional code that will benefit everyone. Just like scientists or journalists, press officers are definitely not all perfect, but when it comes to being a force for good there are some who can stand tall with the best of them.

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