Paul Holmes 28 Jun 2011 // 9:28AM GMT
A few years ago, I was called by a reporter who wanted my comments on the decision by a crisis-stricken mining company to hire a public relations consultancy. After I refuted his suggestion that the decision implied a desire to “spin” the story, he asked me: “If all they plan to do is tell the truth, what do they need a PR firm for?” I still find that question so staggeringly naïve, I’m still not entirely sure it was serious. I asked him whether he would consider questioning a company’s decision to hire a law firm if it was being sued. “If all they plan to do is tell the truth in court, what do they need a lawyer for?” The fact of the matter (surely obvious to anyone who has worked in or with the media) is that a media crisis can be as daunting to the uninitiated as a lawsuit: if you don’t understand the rules by which the game is played, and the fact that most of the other players—critics and reporters alike—have their own agendas, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by savvy opponents or an opaque and inflexible system—regardless of whether the truth is on your side. In an interesting Slate column on the difficulties faced by scientists in trying to communicate around complicated and uncertain issues—climate change, the safety of vaccines, animal experimentation—Professor Paul Offit, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia offers his own thoughts that sum up the challenge pretty succinctly. "We have a duty to explain why vaccination is important. But at no point in your training are you educated about how to deal with the media. The media is required to compress issues into a soundbite. In politics, you lie, are mean, attack the other person and get away with whatever you can. I'm so hardened to it, but scientists are certainly not trained for this. We picked this gentle job, spending 10 years in a windowless room inoculating mice." The whole article makes for an interesting read.