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Press Releases: Are they PR or Sci-Comm? 26.09.14

Lately, I’ve been pondering the communication landscape around science, engineering and technology (SET) breakthroughs. And I’ve wondered if there is a natural intersection where science journalists, university press officers and public relations experts meet. It seems that I am not alone. The latest issue of the Journal of Science Communication, published earlier this week, pondered just the same thing. In a series of commentaries, contributors such as Matt Shipman and Charlotte Autzen discussed the relationship between science communication and public relations activities stemming from universities and other research institutes.

As with any topic where broad definitions are used (e.g. where does sci-comm start and PR begin?) each contributor had a very different view. But one thing they all mentioned was the prevalence of the press release. Now, I should say that a press release is not always the answer. But, right now it is still the most commonly used tool in institutional science communication. I think this is partly due to the ‘impact factor effect’. A lot of science journalists scan high-impact-facto publications such as Science and Nature on a daily basis.

But there are many, many more journals than just those two. In 2011, 26,746 peer-reviewed scholarly journals were in existence (Shipman, 2014). I expect the number is even higher today. So, sometimes, fascinating papers are published in journals that will not have the high visibility of the “big ones”. A well-written press release can help to put great work into context, and raise a flag of the researchers and of course, for the institution that they work for.

In her paper, Autzen argues that whilst the press release is an example of genuine science communication, science journalists are really the ones who can put the research into context, and ask key critical questions about the motives of the research institute. But another contributor, Claessens, argues that true communication only comes in the form of a dialogue, so that press releases cannot be considered a science communication tool.

This paper somewhat ignores the immediacy and interactivity offered by the addition of digital and social channels to a press release, but that may be a debate for a different day! In another paper, Marcinkowski and Kohring suggest that the over-use of press releases actually forces other forms of science communication into the background, and that research institutes should also involve the lay public, rather than purely focusing on media audiences.

So, should universities make securing media coverage a priority? What happens beyond the press release? Highlighting a classic study from the 1970’s, Shipman argues that increased media coverage can be a force for good science because it can aid the discovery of scientific findings within the research community. This is especially true for multidisciplinary work that is rarely visible to all its relevant sub-fields. And Autzen provides data showing that the most highly ranked universities are those that issue the most press releases and have the most media coverage, suggesting that (in an admittedly flawed ranking system!) increased media coverage is associated with academic prestige.

This issue of JCOM suggests that there is still a lot to be said and done about the type of communication being used by publicly-funded research institutes, but one thing is for sure, it looks like the press release is here to stay.

Laurie Winkless

To read the papers, go here