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«Edited by Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS & SCIENCES Science and the Media Please direct inquiries to: American Academy ...»

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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

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.

66 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA 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 oneway 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 twoway 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.


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 posttransition 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 longS C I E NC E P U B L I C RE L AT I O NS A N D SO CIAL RESP O N SIBILITY 67 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” 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 68 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA 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.


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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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.

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Response to Borchelt, Friedmann, and Holland on Managing the Trust Portfolio: Science Public Relations and Social Responsibility Robert Bazell Rick Borchelt, Lynne Friedmann, and Earle Holland raise many important and provocative issues about the role public information specialists play in communicating issues concerning science to the public. I agree with many of their conclusions, but I have trouble with some of their initial assumptions.

They posit that science writing and broadcast reporting have changed dramatically. They write, “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...

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