Is it safe? PR and the public understanding of science

10 Sep

Here’s a conversation I’ve heard numerous times:

Journalist: ‘So can you assure us that there’s no risk to the public?’
Scientist: ‘I can’t say that. There’s some risk in everything, like crossing a road…’
PR adviser: (Quietly) ‘Doh!’

This summarises the problem of doing public relations for science; it’s compounded by the fact that so few journalists and reporters have a science background. So today’s top story on the BBC is a coup for CERN, the Swiss particle physics laboratory until now best known for being the place where Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web to help scientific researchers communicate and share knowledge.

It was a brave editorial decision by the BBC, though they needed to create a bit of ‘the end of the world is nigh’ hype based on the ‘miniscule’ chance of creating a black hole under Geneva. ‘The LHC is safe, and any suggestion that it might present a risk is pure fiction’ it says on the CERN website in a neat phrase that distinguishes science from science fiction.

One Response to “Is it safe? PR and the public understanding of science”

  1. David Phillips 10/09/2008 at 3:58 pm #

    Well timed Richard. Yes it is an issue but it is also one that every practitioner should be prepared for and should brief the client to respond in an effective manner.
    I guess that for the next few months every conversation between a journalist and in-house PR/CEO will have the question ‘when will you announce the redundancies’ or some such leading question.
    And I think that all journalist wives should also be allowed to use make-up to cover those bluish marks on her skin.
    It a game, and playing it can be fun especially with journalists you know well.
    It can be taught and along side the tell the client in case he blurts it out. Can I start…..
    ‘Trust me – I’m a rock start’
    ‘There is a small risk and so while you are here would you turn that switch’
    ‘Glad you asked me that, have you ever considered the nature of largest prime number ever discovered?’
    ‘Oh, that’s why we called it a collider’
    ‘Look with my eyes and you will be able to see deeper into matter than ever before'(apologies to Dr Tara Shears).
    ‘We know the answer will be found at the LHC’
    Any More….

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