Scientists at universities that have good, active public information officers (PIOs) are more likely to promote their research through news media. Of course, I would say that. I am, after all, a PIO at a university. But you don’t have to take my word for it, because those are the findings of a paper published online Aug. 8 in Science Communication.
The paper discusses a study that looked at the role of universities in influencing scientists to publicize their research findings by collaborating on news releases and working with journalists. To that end, the paper’s authors surveyed 942 researchers at 265 universities in Germany, and based their work on the survey results, PR department activities and the organizational structures of the universities themselves. (Here’s a link to the paper – full citation is below.)
The authors came up with a list of eight hypotheses, but there are two that are of particular interest.
Hypothesis 7 states: “The more scientists are influenced by professional PR departments and personnel, the greater the extent of scientist media efforts.”
The authors reasoned that “the more [PIOs] are able to request news items, the more they can facilitate press releases about research results.” (I couldn’t agree more. I confess to badgering researchers for updates on their work.) In addition, the authors reason, “with growing enquiries from PR persons, researchers anticipate the expectations and needs of their organization. As a consequence, they are likely to enlarge media contact.”
Further, the authors suspected that, since scientists are often wary of reporters, the influence of university PR “is presumably also dependent on PR’s ability to create an impression of competence. If scientists perceive expertise and feel well supported, they will probably be more willing to cooperate. Moreover, PR offices may shape scientists’ media affinity to a certain degree, by compiling and providing press clippings. By reading the latter, scientists not only receive feedback on their own communication efforts but also recognize that their peers are becoming publicly visible.”
Before I get to the results, I want to lay out hypothesis 8: “The more scientists seek the support of the PR department to draft press releases, the more contact they seek with journalists, and vice versa.”
The authors developed this hypothesis based on the assumption that “reservations and inhibitions about science journalism decrease with the first successful press releases. Being supported by the PR department in drafting press releases, scientists become better known and can gain both competence and self-confidence in managing further journalistic inquiries.” (This has certainly been true in my experience. Scientists who have worked with me once are far more likely to work with me again. I think there’s a certain “Wow, that was easy” aspect to it.)
But did the study authors find data to support those hypotheses? Yes.
“Pure PR activity is the most powerful predictor of media efforts,” the paper states. “The more often PR professionals ask for news items, the stronger the effect of scientists complying with such demands, especially when it comes to researchers’ self-initiated and PR-assisted press releases. Through well-equipped and active press offices, universities are able to stabilize and professionalize the media contact of researchers.” (Side note: let’s not overvalue news releases. Releases are simply tools that good PIOs use in conjunction with judicious pitching to help bring science to light. Good PIOs are not release-writing monkeys. By the same token, the news release is far from dead, and is still quite useful.)
To simplify this finding of the paper: PIOs matter. Keep reaching out to researchers and asking them to keep you in the loop on their research!
However, one aspect of the findings did surprise me. Specifically, the finding that circulating news clips (e.g., links to news articles featuring university researchers) was more closely linked to encouraging scientist/media engagement than the perceived expertise of the PIOs the scientists dealt with.
This is particularly surprising given that the study authors found that a scientist’s reputation appears to suffer slightly based “on contact with journalists.” (I find that phrase amusing, as it seems to indicate that reporters are contagious in some way.) This dip in reputation is itself somewhat baffling, given that the researchers also found that “a large proportion of scientists engage in public communication” at least twice a year and that “only 22 percent of all [scientists surveyed] neither get in touch with journalists nor [help] draft press releases.”
The authors do offer one plausible explanation for the high level of disregard for scientists who engage in public communication despite the fact that the majority of scientists actually do engage in some form of public communication. The authors posit that “scientists who have relatively few contacts with journalists may be more critical than others in their observation of colleagues with high media prominence who are frequently invited to high-level conferences.”
So, maybe sour grapes? (To be clear: I don’t think scientists are under any sort of obligation to promote their work, but I don’t understand why some people think less of scientists who are willing to engage in public communication.)
Note 1: In the interest of brevity, and my own sanity, I did not delve into the paper’s statistical analyses. Please forgive me. Which leads me to the second note…
Note 2: The paper is not open access. Citation below.
“Organizational Influence on Scientists’ Efforts to Go Public: An Empirical Investigation,” Science Communication, online Aug. 8, 2013, Frank Marcinkowski, Matthias Kohring, Silke Fürst, and Andres Friedrichsmeier. DOI: 10.1177/1075547013494022