Research Bafflegab: How PR Creates Junk Science

by PR Coach

PR creates junk science

Is PR creating junk science in the news?

Sometimes I wonder about the usefulness of PR people. These often-glib practitioners of public relations occasionally dabble in the research labs and scientific journals around the world to create junk science.

Say what?

Robert McHenry’s wonderful post Science vs PR in The American says it best:

” One of the major reasons that science is held in low repute among portions of the citizenry is that it has too often allowed itself to become entangled with public relations. The PR connection has nothing to do with peer review, that essential element in the scientific method. The PR connection has to do with institutional politics, funding, and personal ambition.”

Here are two examples of the fuzzy logic used by PR in two bad media pitches reported by Gawker:  PR Dummies: Dead Parents Are Good for a Chuckle and PR Dummies: Survey Says, ‘Nobody Gives a Shit’?

Pitching unscientific or silly surveys works just as badly.

McHenry’s description of how PR creates mad science is humorously but painfully and accurately depicted:

1. Some scientists publish a report of their work.

2. An alert PR guy who works for the university or institute notices some potentially hype-able words in the report.

3. He writes up a release, under the impression that he is Arthur C. Clarke.

4. J-school grads at a number of media outlets, whose science education ended in 8th grade, pick up the release, change three words to make it their own, and it is published to an unsuspecting public.

5. The unsuspecting public, which is not as dumb as the PR guy believes, dismisses the story as bushwah and blames the scientists.”

Hasn’t every PR pro been there at least once in his or her career?

Struggling with finding a way to promote the latest discoveries in pancreatic cancer research or DNA nanotubes. Huddled with your technology client and the product development team trying to simply and meaningfully describe the benefits of the latest, greatest silicon chip since Pringles.

Of course there’s rarely “news” that real people can use in most scientific breakthroughs and technology advances.

Thank God for market research and surveys. There’s nothing like a mad science story or research study. Built to feed the world of fast food journalism, real-time radio and soundbite TV. And of course, they allow PR people to produce a ton of media coverage.

The problem, as McHenry aptly describes, is that “peer review”, context and scientific rigor are usually lost in the translation. We go from the science lab to the news release written by PR people who quite likely never graduated from grade 10 biology.

The news release is then mass e-mailed, pushed and pitched mercilessly to media who face real-time pressure to be first with the story and still entertain their dwindling audiences. And with rare exceptions, reporters who also struggled with high school physics and chemistry, try to make news judgments and a story from thin gruel.

If the savvy junior PR account executive also provides photos, visuals, B-roll, video or an infographic, look out! This story could go viral. In the meantime, science and credibility both suffer.

Amazon’s Junk Science News Gains Big Coverage

Here’s a great example by none other than Amazon in a news release issued May 15th on Business Wire. It shouts Announces the Most Well-Read Cities in America.

Amazon identifies the top 20 most “well-read” cities including Alexandria, Cambridge, Berkeley, Ann Arbor and Boulder. Big university towns. Other top 20s inexplicably include Gainesville, Miami, Orlando and Knoxville.

Not surprisingly, these “research” results are breathlessly reported across the nation. Highlighted with a sense of pride. Strong evidence of renewed American literacy report news readers with gravitas. Encouragement for Kinsmen clubs, classrooms and colleges alike. At least in the top 20 cities. Stirring up resentment in those cities that failed to make the list.

The headlines speak for themselves:

With 121 Google New stories in the first nine hours, it’s a public relations coup. It’s also a reminder you need to read or view the news with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Remember this ranking is based on Amazon’s “sales data of all book, magazine and newspaper sales in both print and Kindle format since June 1, 2011, on a per capita basis in cities with more than 100,000 residents.”

From there, the news release leaps to the conclusion, unsubstantiated, that this somehow is a measure of the well-read. Some media imply it’s even an indicator of literacy.

The real story in Amazon’s release may be why Orlando, Gainesville, Knoxville and Pittsburgh made the list. Interesting to contemplate. Disney books? Elvis anthologies?

There’s a bit of a science paradox of its own in all this. They unstoppable force of public relations meets the immovable object called the media. There is only one winner and it’s neither accuracy nor the truth in the news.

I enjoy trivia and a little fun in the news as much or more than anyone. The problem is these stories leave the impression that this “research” and its conclusions are reliable and accurate.

As it gets retold and reworked, its plausibility gets stretched to the breaking point. The original premise long-forgotten. Psychologists and psychiatrists in New York are booked solid with residents, publishing employees and the NY literati anguished. Wondering how and why they failed to make the list.

With that cautionary note on PR and junk science, another science story caught my eye today – Scientists Have the Technology to Recreate 170-Year-Old Beer. A very worthy scientific endeavor and definitely news we can use!

What do you think? Should PR be more rigorous or is all fair in PR and media relations? We’d love to hear your hypothesis!

Our public relations labs contain no junk science and the PR Library is  always open for your research and reading. Delivering PR tips and resources just when you need them. Including ideas on how to measure PR, audit your communications or do some crafty content analysis.

The PR Coach blog also has weekly PR insight and perspectives. Just sign up here or get your posts delivered in your favorite RSS feed.

 Jeff Domansky
APR is a PR and social PR strategist. He blogs at The PR Coach and you can also follow him on Twitter @theprcoach or (PR 2.0 Insight).

Photo credit: Marxchivist via Flickr

Previous post:

Next post: