Does this really happen?

Today on Language Log, Mark Liberman points to a recent study regarding the somewhat dodgy intersection of science, academic PR, and the press.  I have never worked in a university public affairs office,* but I spent several years working in communications for various biotech and healthcare firms.  So this passage surprised me:

But Woloshin et al. do conclude that investigators should “review releases before dissemination, taking care to temper their tone (particularly their own quotes, which we often found overly enthusiastic)”. This is certainly good advice, though it’s not much more likely to be followed than any other good advice that runs counter to its recipients’ interests.  [Emphasis mine]

The title to this post is an honest question: do university investigators really not review releases before they go out?  Where?  I have never worked anywhere where press releases were not reviewed by just about everyone involved with the project.  I have had to try to rein in investigators who wanted every name on the publication to review the press release. For those of you keeping score at home, that can be up to about an even dozen, many of whom have only worked on a small corner of the project and don’t have the requisite big-picture experience to review a two-page (double-spaced) press release with anything like objectivity.

I have also never worked with (or talked to) anyone who has worked in science PR who did not sincerely try to balance the demands of precise scientific language with the layperson’s need for simplicity and clarity.  It is a very difficult juggling act — no, it’s more like trying to pack a car for a vacation.  The scientists want to throw everything in, so they are prepared for every eventuality from the beach to the ski slopes.  The PR person is desperately trying to winnow things back, because they are pretty sure there is no need for wooly hats and ski pants when you head for Florida.

It is true that investigator quotes often do start out “enthusiastic” — but that is usually the first draft.  The PR person throws something against the wall that sounds sunny.  Then the scientists get to it and try to insert so many disclaimers that the quote ends up sounding like, “Well, we may have done something moderately interesting here, but don’t get too excited: it probably won’t work at all.  In fact, I don’t even know why you’re reading this.  Never mind — sorry to have bothered you, please carry on with whatever it was you were doing,” and you’re back to packing the car for a winter trip to Park City, only to find flippers and wetsuits in the trunk.

So if the university press offices of the world really are working in a vacuum without investigator input, this is certainly something that needs to be fixed.  But is it the case?  I know that sometimes getting investigator input can be difficult — scientists understandably would rather be in the lab or clinic, and they sometimes view a press release on their work as irrelevant fluff: something that will take valuable time away from their “real work.”  But that is a different problem than the one articulated in the quote: you don’t just need to get the investigator to review the release in that case.  You need to ensure that they are aware of the collateral effect good press has on their projects.  Funding doesn’t come from thin air, after all, and press is a pretty logical thing to point to when you are talking about how donors view the institution.

In that case, we’re back to relationship management. The press officers need to ensure that they have good relationships with the scientists and need to ensure that the scientists understand the value of their work.  We can’t control what the press builds with a press release, but with a good working relationship with the scientific staff, we can give them a better foundation to start from.

*I’ve worked with them, but my data set is too small to draw any conclusions.  All of the university press officers I have worked with were even more conservative than their scientists.

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