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Home > Publications > Research Papers > > Chapter 5: Managing the Trust Portfolio: Science Public Relations and Social Responsibility
Science and the Media

Chapter 5: Managing the Trust Portfolio: Science Public Relations and Social Responsibility

Rick E. Borchelt, Lynne T. Friedmann, and Earle Holland

Science came late to the practice of public relations, owing in large part to a culture of science journalism in the 1950s and 1960s that bordered on cheer-leading: who needed PR when you already had many journalists who uncritically reported breakthrough after breakthrough with little of the healthy skepticism we have come to expect from contemporary media?

But times change, and cultures change. The reverent praise-singers who dominated science writing fifty years ago have been replaced by two generations of increasingly wary journalists who substitute news judgment and enterprise reporting for the adulatory stories scientists were accustomed to seeing in print or hearing on radio or television news.

Little wonder then, many scientists believe, that science as an enterprise no longer inspires unalloyed public trust. A survey of U.S. adults in 2004 commissioned by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), for example, finds that only 34 percent of respondents trust scientists to put the well-being of society over their personal goals (AAAS, 2004).

This “trust gap” is especially pronounced on issues of great social concern and scientific uncertainty. For example, when respondents in a European poll were asked whom they trusted to tell the truth about genetically modified crops, only 6 percent said they trusted university sources. “National public authorities” garnered the trust of 4 percent, while industry captured a scant 1 percent. By contrast, 26 percent of respondents trusted environmental organizations (Haerlin & Parr, 1999). Kafoglou and colleagues (2004) noted in focus groups on the social implications of scientific advances in reproductive technologies that participants frequently thought scientists would forgo ethical behavior for prestige or money.

SELLING SCIENCE

Mistrust in scientists and/or the scientific enterprise has been noted elsewhere by many observers (Royal Society, 1985; House of Lords, 2000), leading some communications researchers to postulate that scientists are beginning to develop a culture of “institutional neurosis” (Bauer et al., 2007) about having lost the public’s mandate. The response has been the propagation of myriad schemes for harnessing the presumed power of glitzy advertising firms to “sell” science the way they might hawk a political candidate or promote a new clothing line. The buzz at research universities is about “institutional advancement” using “integrated marketing” and “branding.” Scientific organizations routinely now turn to industry to fill communications positions in their ranks, assuming perhaps that the person who can instill confidence in consumer goods can do the same for scientists (Nelkin, 1995).

So, for some time now, many scientific institutions have unadvisedly relied on retooled scientists and former reporters to crank out an increasing blizzard of peppy news releases, driven by the axiom—now rejected by communications theorists—that “to know us is to love us” (Bauer et al., 2007). This new Madison Avenue–driven approach has a dim chance of regaining public trust. The scientific community needs to understand what ethical practitioners of public relations have long known: trust is not about information; it’s about dialogue and transparency.

As practitioners use the term, public relations is the art and science of developing meaningful “relations” (or relationships) with the “public” (or publics) necessary for the continuing work of an organization or the scientific enterprise itself. As the Public Relations Society of America affirms in its statement of principles about professional practice, “Public relations helps an organization and its publics mutually adapt to each other” (http://media.prsa.org/prsa+ overview/faq/#a40; accessed June 1, 2009). Public relations helps an organization demonstrate its commitment to and work toward becoming a socially responsible entity. In the context of science, public relations signals the willingness of scientists to come down from the ivory tower and engage the public with language that the public can understand. Practiced this way, public relations on behalf of science or scientists has a different set of ethical constraints and responsibilities than do the practices of marketing and institutional advancement that form today’s prevailing model for promoting science and scientific understanding. The best way to understand these differences is by understanding how public relations evolved and what now constitutes best-practice public relations.

PUBLIC RELATIONS: EVOLUTION OF A DISCIPLINE

The development of effective means of mass communication in the nineteenth century created an entirely new field of play for publicists, and this initial “publicity” phase of public relations continues to this day, benefiting from new technologies to reach mass markets faster with more targeted messages. Historians of public relations refer to this kind of public relations as “press agentry,” so named because its practitioners often went by the name “press agents” and were the marketers that hawked press releases and news tips to a willing media enterprise (Grunig & Hunt, 1984).

At its heart, press agentry PR seeks to maximize awareness of a product, an idea, or an institution. “Making the news” or “getting ink” are the primary benchmarks of success for press agentry, and “placement” of stories about one’s organization in media outlets still is the primary—albeit shortsighted— goal desired by many scientific organizations. The myth of communication clung to by many scientists holds that sending a message is the same as communicating a message. Dissemination is confused with communication.

What is most significant about press agentry is the direction of information flow: it is overwhelmingly one-way, from the organization to its public or publics, with few feedback loops from the public to the laboratory bench.

PR practitioners soon learned, however—even if the CEOs of their client organizations did not—that public attention was no guarantee of public support. Being known for the “right” things was as important as simply being known. This required a certain amount of explaining to the public just what you were up to, and a new phase of public relations—the “explanatory” phase —developed early in the twentieth century (Grunig & Hunt, 1984).

In the scientific world, explanation—often under the rubric of “public information”—is the prevailing model of practice.1 A less flattering term that many people use in referring to explanatory PR of this type is “spin control”—making sure the public knows a lot about the science or the scientists, but only the “right” things the organization or institution thinks the public should know.

Many reporters and citizen watchdog groups are wary of the public information approach to public relations practice. Because little or no attempt is made to interact with interested parties outside the organization except to provide information, these parties often are suspicious of the motives of the organization—too often, rightly so. In many instances, requests for information from the media and public are required to go through the institution’s public information office, or only the public information officer is allowed to talk to members of the public or press on behalf of the institution. For a science reporter bent on interviewing a scientist about a new scientific finding, this tactic seems an arbitrary barrier to effective reporting of a story. For members of activist groups who may be critical of the organization (such as an animal rights group flogging a university engaged in animal research), the public relations office is viewed as an obstacle designed to “protect” the university and effectively hide “what’s really going on” from public scrutiny.

The public information model of public relations is still basically a one-way street, or at least highly asymmetric. While the organization and its PR practitioners may impart more information than those who practice simple press agentry, little or no feedback is sought from the public. Explanatory public relations may employ focus groups, polls and surveys, and other means of finding out what the public knows or thinks in order to determine the right “spin,” but its focus is control. Explanatory public relations does not recognize a legitimate public interest in full disclosure; nor does it engage in two-way dialogue with its publics.

Asymmetric communications practices have cultivated a public wary and mistrustful of the scientific enterprise (Millstone & van Zwanenberg, 2000). Yet asymmetric communications models are far and away the most widely practiced modes of public relations among scientific organizations.

A NEW FORM OF PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT EMERGES

Many corporations have moved from one-way communications approaches toward more fully symmetric models. By the late 1980s, a comprehensive survey of hundreds of organizations and their approaches to public relations published by the International Association of Business Communicators as the “Excellence” project (Grunig, 1992) found that a significant number of corporations and nonprofit organizations were practicing dialogue-driven stakeholder engagement. Further analysis of these two-way symmetrical communications models (Grunig et al., 2002; Grunig & Hung, 2002) documents that they produce better long-term relationships with the public (or publics) than do asymmetrical approaches to public relations. A case study of pre- and post-transition communications strategies by the Long Island–based Brookhaven National Laboratory (after its original contract was summarily pulled by the U.S. Department of Energy, over displeasure with community relations following an underground tritium leak, and awarded to another contractor) suggests that fully symmetric communication can be highly effective in a scientific setting (Lynch, 2001).

The goal of two-way symmetric communication is the mutual satisfaction of the scientific organization and its publics with the relationships that exist between them. The mutual-satisfaction approach to public relations emphasizes true interaction between organizations and their publics. It requires a commitment to transparency on the part of the organization; negotiation, compromise, and mutual accommodation; and institutionalized mechanisms of hearing from and responding to the public. It places a premium on long-term relationship building with all of the strategic publics: taxpayers, media, shareholders, regulators, community leaders, donors, and others.

A variety of new technologies are available to make symmetric communication possible and even affordable. The Web provides a number of platforms, from online discussion groups to chat forums to Web logs (“blogs”), that allow valuable real-time, person-to-person communication with members of the public.

A profound ethical issue is embedded in the practice of public engagement: one cannot promise engagement and make only a show of listening. The commitment to symmetric communication falls short if the organization hears but does not respond to the concerns or issues of its publics. Mutual satisfaction— and the ethical practice of public relations in science—requires that organizations be open to reasonable changes requested of it, just as effective—and ethical—public engagement programs in science should signal a willingness to incorporate public input in science policy or regulatory programs.

Scientific organizations can productively use all three approaches to public relations. Filling an auditorium for an important lecture by a Nobel laureate is a publicity job. Preparing brochures and articles that clearly and simply articulate the research conducted or promoted by the organization is explanatory public relations. But while many scientific organizations say (and might even believe) they are using the third approach to public relations, few actually encourage or engage in true dialogue with the public or publics. Unfortunately, they treat public engagement or public consultation as a box-checking exercise necessary before they get on with their “real” work. Rarely do scientific organizations devote significant resources to meaningful symmetric communication—to managing the trust portfolio.

MANAGING THE TRUST PORTFOLIO

“Managing the trust portfolio” refers to the strategies—and, to a lesser extent, the tactics—that scientific organizations use to manage the relationships that exist between the organization and its many stakeholders. Science public relations done effectively and strategically is an important tool in managing this portfolio and helps the other parts of the organization perform their jobs more effectively by cultivating or maintaining trust in the ability of the organization to do science, advocacy, or science policy.

For example, a government-funded research institution may have a number of stakeholders for whom science communication would be helpful in establishing and maintaining trust. First and foremost, the organization is probably concerned about its funding stream, and appropriate kinds of public relations can help it convince legislators or agency heads that money sent to the organization is money well spent, that their research is top-quality and worth supporting. Second, the organization probably needs to make sure that scientists and researchers elsewhere know about the range of research it is conducting, in order to facilitate collaboration, keep abreast of scientific research conducted by other organizations, position the organization as a credible and reliable scientific collaborator, and enhance the organization’s attractiveness when recruiting new staff. Third, the organization may need to have a good relationship with the people in the area surrounding the facility; government-run laboratories increasingly are facing the need to maintain the trust and support of their local communities in order to do their research in community settings.

In this context, news coverage becomes one of many means of communication with stakeholders, not an end in and of itself. Media in this context are third-party validators. Bad press can affect the disposition of key stakeholders toward the organization. Conversely, good press can validate the work and integrity of the organization among groups that materially affect the organization’s ability to do its research. But good public relations practitioners never mistake the route they use to get to strategic publics with the publics themselves.

Nor do ethical practitioners of science PR trade on their relationships— with reporters, community leaders, funders, or collaborators—in ways that deliberately obscure, alter, or doctor information these stakeholders need to make informed decisions about scientific institutions, research programs, or the scientific enterprise.

PUBLIC RELATIONS AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY

Most people think of public relations as something that one office in an organization does in relative isolation from the organization’s research program. Done well, 90 percent of managing the trust portfolio is management counseling: advising on how to stay out of trouble instead of figuring out how to get out of trouble. Too often public relations is brought in to implement strategic decisions that already are set in stone. Public relations cannot be effective in that situation. Public relations managers need to be involved early, involved often, and have a meaningful say in company or organizational policy development.

Public relations is a function of the entire organization, not just the communications office. The best—and most ethical—public relations practitioners catalyze institutional change rather than simply implementing it. Public relations is most effective at the organizational level when it helps the organization understand what its strategic publics are, how best to interact with them, and what those publics expect in return. This is a management function of public relations and requires that public relations have a place at the table among the organization’s senior executives to be truly successful.

At the societal level, public relations professionals can help organizations understand what it means to be socially responsible and can contribute to the ethical behavior and social commitment of the organization. At the societal level, management of the trust portfolio goes beyond the trust engendered between the organization per se and its publics; it helps the organization manage the trust portfolio for the entire scientific enterprise. Socially responsible scientific organizations help cultivate public trust in science and technology.

Public relations—if empowered by management—can play a vital role in articulating social responsibility and finding ways for an organization to allay public mistrust and wariness of science and scientists.

REFERENCES

American Association for the Advancement of Science. 2004. AAAS survey report, http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2004/aaas_survey_report.pdf.

Bauer, M. W., N. Allum, and S. Miller. 2007. What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research? Liberating and expanding the agenda. Public Understanding of Science 16(2007):79–95.

Grunig, J. E., ed. 1992. Excellence in public relations and communication management. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

———, and C. F. Hung. 2002. The effect of relationships on reputation and reputation on relationships: A cognitive, behavioral study. Paper presented at the PRSA Educator’s Academy 5th Annual International, Interdisciplinary Public Relations Research Conference, Miami, Florida, March 8–10.

———, and T. Hunt. 1984. Managing public relations. San Diego: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Grunig, L. A., J. E. Grunig, and D. M. Dozier. 2002. Excellent public relations and effective organizations: A study of communication management in three countries. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Haerlin, B., and D. Parr. 1999. How to restore public trust in science. Nature 400:499.

House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. 2000. Science and Society, 3rd report. London: HMSO.

Kafoglou, A., J. Scott, and K. Hudson. 2004. Reproductive genetic testing: What America thinks. Washington, D.C.: Genetics and Public Policy Center.

Lynch, M. 2001. Managing the trust portfolio. In Proceedings of the PCST2001 Conference. http://visits.web.cern.ch/visits/pcst2001/proceedings_list.html; accessed June 4, 2007.

Millstone, E., and P. van Zwanenberg. 2000. A crisis of trust: For science, scientists or for institutions? Nature Medicine 6(12):1307–1308.

Nelkin, D. 1995. Selling science: How the press covers science and technology. Rev. ed. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.

Office of Science and Technology. 2000. Science and the public: A review of the science communication and public attitudes to science in Britain. London: Office of Science and Technology and Wellcome Trust.

Royal Society of London. 1985. The public understanding of science. London: Royal Society.

ENDNOTES

1. Readers should not confuse the public information model with the title “public information officer” (PIO), which is commonly used for communications officers at universities and nonprofit scientific organizations. While most PIOs practice the public information model of communication, many increasingly practice two-way communications models. Unfortunately, many PIOs also still practice simple press agentry.