In today’s media and public relations landscape, it is important to remember that facts and truth rarely are enough to settle the discussion. This is an acute problem for the scientific and research community – especially when they attempt to publicize new findings. Fundamentally, scientists and researchers need media training to guide them through media and political minefields.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the poster child for this problem. Since Charles Darwin penned The Origin of Species, there hasn’t been a scientific theory more attacked, ridiculed, even hated than that of climate change. In this case, a group of thousands of the world’s most respected scientists and experts issue recommendations to the world to try and mitigate climate change. While that may seem benign, the IPCC has been under a withering assault from a well-funded opposition.
You may have heard of “climategate” (note: after nearly 40 years, perhaps we can find another way to refer to scandals, alleged or real, than -gate suffixes?). Some internal IPCC emails were leaked to climate skeptics. The emails contained standard scientific equivocation; taken out of context and plugged into an anti-climate change campaign, some seemed to indicate that the science was inaccurate.
All hell broke loose. The IPCC was called in for review, climate skeptics scored a major PR victory, and climate science was “in question” again. Snake-bitten by climategate, the IPCC made matters exponentially worse by issuing a letter to its scientists warning them about engaging the media. Of course, the letter was leaked.
While climategate continues as a worldwide narrative, the recent story of the IPCC’s total exoneration was much less publicized. This is a standard media conundrum. The initial “scandal,” true or not, always saturates the media. The resulting vindication does not. That means right at the outset you must be ready to defend everything and be well armed with compelling talking points to support your cause. If you let the discussion get framed without you, then you are playing defense rather than publicizing your findings.
Scientists, NGOs, and think tanks would do well to receive media training and seek the counsel of an experienced PR firm to help with the launch of a new initiative or report. This is especially true if your research is on a controversial topic. You may think your research will speak for itself. It won’t. It can be twisted, taken out of context, and publicly thrown back at you. Without a decisive and coherent response, the public backlash can be brutal and your research will be of little value.