Is it all just PR now?

Public engagement is at the heart of the annual Gothenburg International Science Festival. In 2013, the festival included a Forum for Research communication.

In her keynote presentation, Vivi-Anne Perry talked about the increased demand on researchers to demonstrate impact also outside traditional research journals and how this changes the nature of Science Communication. She raised the question if university press releases run the risk of being more about a competition for attention than about public engagement. Her talk had the title “Pimp my science – is it all just PR now?”

In July 2012, an advertising agency certainly managed to pimp a message. A serious and ambitious project, aimed to show that women can play important roles in science, was launched with a campaign full of stereotypes. It brought an outrage. The intention of producing a movie going viral was amply fullfilled – in spite of the movie being withdrawn from the EU site within 24 hours.

A large science center recently launched an app Dino Stomp, accompanied with the text “Take a movie of your friends and see them being squashed by a giant dinosaur”. Apart from the not-so-friendly approach to your friends, it also seems that it may lure children into what educational researchers refer to as “the Flintstone effect” – that many people incorrectly believe that humans have coexisted with dinosaurs.

An amusement park brings on a campaign with sad children’s faces, made “happy” only with a “laughing app”. The campaign was interpreted in many unintended ways by many different groups. Meant as a joke – but at the same time communicating many signals far removed from the values of the park.

Chalmers university of technology presented a large ad, which could be described as “attack of the syringes”, to recruit students to their top-class engineering programs. The text “Choose a university where, in the worst case, you may become a sought-after engineer” fails to convey respect for the engineering profession. The people in charge do not acknowledge that they see a problem.

What happens when the advertising agents or information officers succeed in getting overwhelming public attention – but at the cost of sending signals that strongly deviate from core values of the organization?

When the message is pimped to the point where communication becomes “just PR” – to whom does the public relate?

5 thoughts on “Is it all just PR now?

    • I think that the radio segment, and the paper that prompted it, can be connected to an observation in Vivi-Anne Perry’s talk, that a single university press release sometimes makes its way verbatim to 80 news websites, and that, when newspapers no longer have specialized science journalists, some results get publicity without a scientific background check, and without being put in context.

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