Charities and the media

Today I hotfooted it (literally in the 30c+ heat!) to the World Conference for Science Journalists (WCSJ) taking place at Central Hall in London.  I was taking part in a debate on the question: ‘Is the growing influence of PR on science journalism in the public interest?’

The other speakers included Ben Goldacre from the Guardian, Andrew Jack from the FT and John Clare from  Lions Den Communications – a PR company.  It was a good debate raising some interesting issues for not just my members but all medical research and health charities.  On the way back a few questions struck me:

Do charities train and support their press team well enough to handle science stories, filter the spurious from the evidence-based, and fight their corner with colleagues who are anxious to raise the profile over and above anything else?

As charities increasingly become direct-to-patient providers of information and comment on science and health stories are they doing enough to also quality control what they and their colleagues are saying?  And should they be more proactive in dishing the bad stuff rather than trotting out the perennial ‘more research is needed.’

How close is ‘too close’ when charities work with industry?  What should charities be expected to report in terms of links, funding and public benefit derived from it?

As it says on the exam paper: Discuss?

Today I took the line that the PR industry and its people  (which includes those doing PR for charities) are too easy a target for those who criticise what is in fact a system-wide problem in how we feed the beast that is today’s mass communications industry.

But, above all, that patients are actually better at discerning the rubbish from the sensible if given the right tools and the opportunity to engage with health professionals.  A media story about a new treatment is often their starting point not their end point.

That good science – and the organisations that stand for it – do not put nearly enough money into communications and PR and are ten years behind the PR industry in their thinking about public engagement with the modern consumer?

That charities should work with industry.  It is no bad thing.  But the relationship needs to be open and transparent and we all have a duty to police and get rid of ‘Trojan Horse’ patient lobbies which are in fact industry mouthpieces.

As I say, discuss?  It is an interesting topic and the debate will likely run and run.

In the meantime, watch out on our website for details of our workshop next year for press officers working for medical research charities entitled: Communications: is it a science or an art?

And if you can’t wait that long, a reminder of AMRC’s guidelines on working with industry ‘An Essential Partnership.’

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