In this session, chaired by Toby Murcott, producer, lecturer and science writer, the panel and the audience made up of mostly public relations and press officers discussed the pressing need for transparency in a world where PR copy flows readily into news.
Andy Williams, lecturer at Cardiff University, kicked off saying at its best, PR can help produce accurate stories and communicate uncertainty. He explained that the “grand coalition” of science communicators and organizations is good for pooling resources and maintaining a unified voice.
For Williams, PR’s drawbacks are that transparency is diminished; science communicators can forget they are campaigning and mistakenly believe they are communicating truth; news will be simplified and hyped; and scientists in public debates self-censor to maintain the unified voice. But he said it is important to “blame the game, not the players”.
Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust, said we should accept the fact that the business model for news media is in trouble: journalists have more work but less time and fewer resources. Meanwhile, there are well-intentioned PR officers, and the public has access to many more sources of information then ever before.
Moore asked, given this situation, how can we best serve the public? He argued communications people should adopt more journalistic values to prevent the public from being misinformed in this easily corruptible system (where, for example, even a fake press release about a chastity alarm can get reported around the world).
At the same time, he said, journalists need to be more transparent about their sources. To this end, the Trust is doing its part with their websites: churnalism.com, journalisted.com, and the upcoming unsourced.com, which will crowdsource links to sources of articles.
Ruth Francis, head of press at Nature Publishing Group and chair of Stempra, argued that the times are not changing for PR; it’s just the means of doing it and the pace that have changed. She said: “PR is filling the void because the void has opened due to the changing business model”.
In response to the suggestion that PR adopt journalistic values, she said the trouble is that even when PR officers do a good job they are accused of having a sinister agenda. She said that PR officers are not journalists, agreeing that the key is transparency.
The session left no doubt that journalism is dangerously reliant on PR, especially in science. But on a positive note, Moore and Francis both emphasized that in the long term, organizations have it in their best interests to do responsible, transparent PR.
Catie Lichten, UKCSJ student scholar