University Communication & Trust in Science: A Peek Behind the Curtain



Over the past few months, I have seen a number of articles and blog posts covering the issue of ‘hype’ in science reporting. Many of the stories point a finger at university press offices, obviously a result of this research paper.

I haven’t been shy about sharing my thoughts on this issue. I continued the trend earlier this month when I participated in the “Trust in the Marketplace” panel during the “Does the Public Trust Science?” workshop, which took place May 5-6 at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

I used my opening statement to talk about the pressure felt by university communicators, and how job demands and expectations can drive behaviors that influence public trust in science. I offered a peek behind the curtains, which I hope helped others understand how mistakes can happen – and more importantly – how they can be prevented.

The following is a loose transcript of what I said at the event.

The job of a university communicator has changed a lot in the past 10 years. I remember a day when we just pushed out news releases. We’d score some great press, pat ourselves on the back and say ‘gosh look at the impact that we’re having.’ Not thinking about the fact that we weren’t measuring impact at all, we were measuring activity.

When we talk about outcomes, we need to think beyond simply getting a story ‘out there.’ The real impact of communication is what happens in the days, weeks and months after a story runs. Getting lots of eyeballs on a story is great, but eyeballs alone are meaningless. What happens as a result of the exposure we get is the real impact. And measuring the impact of communication is difficult. There isn’t a ‘Google Analytics’ style dashboard we can glance at to see your daily impact score. We have to dig deep.

At Georgia Tech, when we release research stories we’re interested in more than just reach. We want to know if they lead to new opportunities for researchers, if they generated any new research grants or if they helped boost our overall research reputation. We’ve done market research to assess the reputation of our research enterprise, we’ll repeat that research after a few years to determine if we’ve moved the needle in the right direction.

There are some organizations, however, that choose to take the easy way out. After all, measuring activity is easy. It’s also easy to convince non-communicators that eyeballs equal impact, because nice stories in the press make them feel good about themselves and their organizations. They may not even realize the true impact of the communication comes later.

When leadership values activity and output over results, something dangerous happens. Quantity becomes more important than quality. This creates a problem for those university communicators who feel pressured to pump out news releases focused on grabbing as much attention as possible. In these cases, it’s easy to see how exaggeration or hype can be fed by what organizations value.

Adding to all of this is the highly competitive atmosphere in academia. Every university is competing for best students, the biggest grants and all-important philanthropic dollars – and communication can help make those things happen.

Every university wants to lead rather than follow. This often means being first to market by getting stories out quickly. But the faster you push out research news, the more room there is for error. Research can be misinterpreted and exaggeration can seep in. None of it is good for a university’s reputation. The public doesn’t benefit, and the getting things wrong certainly doesn’t do anything to boost public trust in science.

At Georgia Tech, we’re serious about research communication. Have we made mistakes? Yes. Will we make mistakes again? Yes. Every university will. We’re very lucky to have a highly skilled science writing/research news team, staffed by experienced professionals who follow a carefully crafted process when preparing to release research stories.

Our process includes:

  • Carefully reading journal articles.
  • Talking to the researchers/professors to determine if there’s enough substance to make a story worth sharing broadly.
  • Working with the research compliance office to make sure all protocol and regulatory issues have been addressed.
  • Identifying potential conflicts of interest.
  • Reading the fine print on research contracts, many of which include language governing public release of the research findings.
  • Working with collaborating research organizations, including other universities, which may have contributed to the research.
  • Requesting review and approval of all materials by the researchers leading the project.
  • Requesting research sponsor review and approval of the content.

A process like this often makes it difficult to get stories out fast, but it’s important to have the checks and balances in place.

At Georgia Tech, we’re not focused solely on getting the largest audience for our stories. We’d rather share our research with the right audience. This is why we’ve focused a great deal of attention on ‘owned media’ in addition to ‘earned media.’

The jewel in our research communication crown is our Research Horizons magazine, which we’ve been publishing for 31 years. It has been completely rethought, and redesigned with a new focus on core research areas and industry needs. We also carried this effort through to our websites, e-newsletters, etc.

We’re not alone in thinking about owning our own communication vehicles. Honestly, it’s liberating in some ways. We have much more control over how our stories are told and with whom they’re shared. This, however, comes with a heavy responsibility to remain honest and accurate. The information we share impacts lives, influences industries and informs policy decisions. We’re serious about what we do because we care about quality – and we don’t want to be the university that makes a critical mistake.

Here’s a video of the entire panel discussion. My part begins at 20:54, but I encourage you to watch the whole thing. You can also find a stream of live tweets about the panel here.  I was honored to sit alongside:

Related Resources:

The Association Between Exaggeration in Health Related Science News and Academic Press Releases: Retrospective Observational Study (BMJ Study)

University Communication and the Blame Game

Does the Public Trust Science (Event Website)

Does the Public Trust Science (Event Speaker Bios) 

A University Rethinks Research Communication 

The Live Tweet Stream During the Trust in the Marketplace Panel (Storify)

Video of Trust in the Marketplace Panel 

All Videos from the ‘Does the Public Trust Science’ Event

Trust in Science: Problem (not quite) Solved

How Science Reporters Choose Their Sources (Recap of Another Panel at the Event)

One thought on “University Communication & Trust in Science: A Peek Behind the Curtain

  1. Pingback: Last and This Week’s Good Reads: | The UnderStory

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