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science writing fifty years ago have been replaced by two generations of increasingly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
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.
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
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
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,
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.
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———, and C. F. Hung. 2002. The effect of relationships on reputation
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———, and T. Hunt. 1984. Managing public relations. San
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