Wake-up, university leaders! Value your press officersreport from the Science Media Centre is a “timely reminder” to the science and higher education community that they need to “value and resource the specialist role of research press officers who do so much to help scientists share their research via the media”, according to Sir Patrick Vallance, the United Kingdom government’s chief scientific adviser, who became a familiar face on TV news bulletins and updates from Downing Street during the pandemic.
Vallance was one of several high-profile figures endorsing the findings of the study commissioned by the London-based Science Media Centre to mark the 20th anniversary of the organisation, which was originally set up to help scientists get their message across to the public, via the media, about controversial issues such as animal testing and genetically modified foods.
Also welcoming the study, titled the Changing Role of Science Press Officers, was Professor Sir Malcolm Grant, chancellor of the University of York and former president and provost of University College London, who said: “This report should be essential reading for all VCs [vice-chancellors] and a wake-up call to university leaders of the importance of keeping a group of skilled press officers who are vital to ensuring public understanding of and trust in science.”
Among the key findings of the research led by Dr Helen Jamison, an independent science communications consultant, was that the role of science press officers has changed over the past two decades to become “more professional” with the remit and responsibilities broadening and requiring a much wider skill set.
More strategic and proactive
Science press offices have become “more strategic and proactive” and better recognised and resourced as a central function at most universities, “although in some places they still don’t match requirements, and in others are squeezed by competition from other functions like marketing”, the report notes.
Jamison conducted in-depth interviews with 41 press and communications officers and senior executives responsible for setting universities’ strategic goals for communications and carried out an online survey to collect more quantitative data from a further 40 press and communications officers working across UK universities.
The report highlights how radically different the media and higher education landscapes have become compared with 20 years ago.
“Societal debate is more polarised, universities face greater financial pressure, and the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated these trends,” as did the “explosion of social media” and the “ever-hungry 24-hour global online news media”.
Fiona Fox, chief executive of the Science Media Centre, said in the report’s introduction that UK science was a key part “of the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic that we can all celebrate”, with the development of vaccines, clinical trials and the detection of new variants.
“Central to this success was the willingness of large numbers of scientists to engage with the news media, answering journalists’ questions and clearly explaining their research.
“This was not an add-on for scientists with time on their hands. It was an essential part of the pandemic response. There was no point having a vaccine if people were too scared to take it, or implementing evidence-based public health measures if people wouldn’t follow them.”
A behind-the-scenes function
Behind the scientists in the news were science press officers, said Fox, encouraging scientists to engage, providing expert advice, setting up media interviews, translating complex research into journalese, running press conferences, and pushing for corrections when things went wrong.
However, the very “behind-the-scenes” nature of their work means science press officers often go unnoticed and it is not surprising, then, that the dramatic changes to this role in our universities have also been overlooked, said Fox.
“While universities retain a strong sense of the public interest in the knowledge they generate, communicating science to the wider public audience often plays second fiddle to marketing to students and communication with key stakeholders including government, industry and funders,” suggested Fox.
Combined with a reduced focus on the mainstream news media by university marketing and communication teams, despite it still reaching the wider public, there are “important questions about whose job it is to focus on the public understanding of science – critical at times of crisis and controversy”, said Fox.
Researchers’ needs and expectations
The polling company Ipsos produced a supplementary report based on focus groups of researchers to the Science Media Centre’s main study to understand their current communications and media relations needs, and expectations of their press and communications offices.
This highlighted the ‘high-stakes’ and politicised nature of societal debate, which has become more hostile and in many cases is leading universities to take a “more risk averse approach to communications”.
Among more senior participants, who were at an earlier stage in their career 20 years ago, it emerged that researchers today valued speaking with the news media more than they did in the past and were less likely to consider it wasted time as they felt the media had become better at talking about science since the 2000s.
“However, these views were not as strongly held among junior and mid-level researchers, suggesting that a perception bias is in play: the most senior academics are more likely to be approached by more senior and better-informed media organisations, and are also more confident to push back against inaccurate reporting,” said the Ipsos report.
Lack of perceived support
Engaging with news media was also seen as a matter of personal motivation rather than being supported by institutions, with researchers feeling that support from universities to speak to journalists tended to be reactive and based on academics approaching the press office – and in some cases support was simply unavailable.
There was also a “common perception that the press office might not support researchers who were misrepresented or misquoted in the media”.
The Ipsos focus groups found a “widespread perception that informing the public about scientific advances was important, based on the need to build the reputation of science and show return on taxpayer investment in research funding”. This is particularly true for charity funders who derive their resources in part from donations from the public.
The Ipsos focus groups reported “very mixed experiences of dealing with news media among the mid-level researchers, which led some of them to say they had actively avoided media engagement opportunities”.
Half of the participants in the overall investigation by the Science Media Centre mentioned harassment of researchers as an additional barrier to media engagement, with many describing how, particularly during the pandemic, online “trolling” and abuse of researchers had sometimes become very hostile and difficult to manage.
However, researchers understood that engagement with the news media brings clear reputational and financial benefits for their universities, including attracting new students and securing a better rating in the Research Excellence Framework exercise, to gain greater levels of research funding.
More junior-level researchers wanted more media-related training before taking the plunge, with only a few saying they had been able to access it through their universities.
The report urges university and science leaders to adequately resource the distinct remit of research communications, acknowledging its value in getting science to the public and promoting trust in science.
It says they should value and invest in media relations skills within their comms teams – investing in media relations as it is an effective way of communicating science to key audiences – and ensure some of their research communications staff have specialist media relations expertise.
As for the Science Media Centre, it “should act as an advocate for specialist science press officers, similar to the way it champions specialist science journalists. This should include articulating the value skilled press officers bring to their organisation.”
Press officers interviewed for the research said support from senior leaders was vital and said: “When the people at the top ‘get it’ and understand the media, it can transform the role press and communications teams are able to play.”
Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He has worked both as a news reporter and university media manager and represented UK universities on the European Association of Communication Professionals in Higher Education (EUPRIO) for 10 years until 2012. EUPRIO holds its 2022 annual conference in Zürich, Switzerland on 28-31 August on the theme of ‘Science communication and engagement’. Follow Nic on Twitter at @EuprioNic.