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Good news! Some more media criticism of PR-funded research

November 19th, 2006

Dr Petra

In yesterday’s Guardian Ben Goldacre criticises PR research within his Bad Science column. In particular Ben focuses on PR companies paying for academics to front their stories.

This follows on reports from people like Anthea Lipsett at the Times Higher Education Supplement earlier this year who have been trying to raise awareness of the problems of PR based research, and as regular readers of this blog will know it’s something myself and colleagues have been campaigning on for years.

Over the past five or so years PR companies have spotted opportunities for using academics within their campaigns. There are several commonly used approaches by PR companies including –
- setting up a ‘survey’,
- developing a ‘formula’ (e.g. to identify how ‘sad’ you are in relation to booking a summer holiday),
- creating a ‘diagnostic’ (such as what your sleep position says about your relationship or how the football team you support predicts your sexual behaviour)

It isn’t clear why PR companies decided to start involving academics. Or where it began or why it worked, but the fact that it did work has led to the practice spreading so fast it is now standard practice to get a story into the papers. At the same time magazines and papers have increased their practice of bolstering stories with ‘experts’. Because most academics don’t pay much attention to the media and consider those involved with the media as inferiors nobody really addressed the involvement of academics in PR, and now it may be difficult to control the practice.

A few years ago, when academics first started getting involved in PR ‘research’ the academic had some power within the relationship. They would be given an area that a client (the company wanting PR) needed investigating and could study it. Admittedly they would have an eye on creating headlines and had to complete their research in record speed time, but they did decide on the research question and method used – and usually had a background in the area they were studying.

Things have since changed. Nowadays PR companies decide on the research method to be used (mostly surveys but sometimes formulas or diagnostics). They create the survey questions/diagnostics/formulas in consultation with their client, and decide on the outcomes and headlines they wish to generate in advance of any work taking place. Only at this point will an expert or academic will be approached to give a quote to back up the ‘study’ and in many cases their quotes will also be written for them.

In the bad science column Ben asks the following questions “If you have been approached by a PR company to sell your name, and that of your academic institution, for a commercial company’s promotional benefit, then I want to know about it: how far do they specify the answer they want? They must approach far more people than take up their lucrative offers”.

Whilst there are some answers to these questions, the area’s not always that simple to explain. PR companies don’t approach you to sell either your name or that of your institution (although of course that is what you’re doing by working with them). What they do is contact you with a lot of flattery about how they’ve found out about you/your work, have an exciting project they’d like you to work on, and they’ll pay you for giving them (or putting your name to) a quote to go with their press release.

Selling the name of your institution is a different matter. Many institutions have vague rules around this area so if a person is portrayed within the media as acting in a consultancy role on a project (even if an institution’s name is mentioned) this is permissible within many universities. That said if someone does act as a consultant naming their institution they are expected to pay a percentage of their fee/profit to their employer. Perhaps an increased public debate on this topic may lead to institutions tightening up the regulations.

The problem is very often those who do lots of these PR activities are not directly linked to an institution. So although they’re described as a doctor or professor at such-and-such university (implying they’re a full time member of staff), it may be they’re a visiting lecturer or only have a tenuous link with a university. Some of the ‘usual suspects’ in this area tend to be very well known and bring a lot of publicity to a university that may be why their activities are not challenged.

More worrying is the number of experts/academics who don’t sell their institution (since they don’t work for one) but sell the name of their discipline – and the main offenders in this camp are those who do PR work claiming to be ‘psychologists’. It isn’t just academic institutions that need to become more aware of this problem, it’s also professional organisations who need to clamp down on members misusing their position – and to highlight where people are claiming job titles that aren’t truly accurate.

To further answer Ben’s questions, PR companies will set out what they want from you as soon as you tell them you’re interested (sometimes even before). They will usually approach a number of academics/experts with a piece of work and ask for their cooperation. The first one to reply positively usually wins out. That said, those who regularly work with PR companies are more likely to be approached and also more likely to accept the offers of work.

The strangest thing about the relationship with PR companies and academics is that their offers are increasingly less ‘lucrative’ than in the past. Whilst experts are paid to front ‘research’ they do not make much money from it (unless they are a big name). Giving (or putting your name to) a quote may generate around £500 that does sound a lot but if that’s your main source of income it isn’t much. You can obtain more money by fronting campaigns or being a spokesperson for a company, but very few people do this. Since most PR companies spend their budgets on hitting the headlines not doing ‘research’ (or paying their ‘experts’) they tend not to throw large sums of money at their ‘spokespeople’.

So whilst we should be tackling this problem at a university-wide level, we also need to tackle it within organisations and within the media itself. Just last Friday I had a call from a journalist following up a PR study who believed because it had the name of a psychologist attached to it that not only was it independent and good research, but that it had really been completed within an academic setting. Sadly although I did persuade them their story angle was based on non-existent research that had no other evidence to support it they couldn’t change the angle because it was what their editor wanted. Editors and journalists need more information on how PR research is put together, greater training in how to access more reliable research, and skills to evaluate PR-type research when it comes across their desks. After all, it’s more of a story if you can pick apart something than slavishly report it like your rivals do. And there are stacks of other robust studies that could be covered.

We really need to be addressing why academics get involved with these activities. For some who have no institutional affiliation it may be a source of income but that does involve taking on huge amounts of PR-type research. For most the money earned is not so great, so we need to know what other factors are motivating some academics to do this work? Is it the pursuit of fame? The misguided belief that PR ‘research’ and inevitable press coverage enhances their career?

Thankfully this issue now seems to be gathering momentum within the media and hopefully it will lead to wider discussions about the roles and responsibilities of academics.

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