Formula for the perfect science PR story

Posted on Sep 8, 2015

Formula for the perfect science PR story

For a long time there was a trend amongst science PR officers for formulaic stories which promoted a particular area of science, an organisation, or a campaign of some sort. Last week, Visit England revived a Royal Academy of Engineering story on Pooh Sticks to promote the best rivers to visit to play the game. Here it is covered by the BBC.

In 2004, physicists hit rock bottom when the Institute of Physics released a story to coincide with the release of the final ever episode of Sex in the City. I had some small responsibility for this one and it still sends a shudder of guilty pleasure down my spine. This formula was for high heel shoes and helped you work out just how high they could be before you’d fall over. Here’s the Guardian’s take on it. Thanks to the IoP, women everywhere are staying upright (just remember to take a calculator when you go shopping).

This one seemed to be the straw which broke David Derbyshire’s back at the Daily Telegraph. Coming after a long run of similar stories from the physics community – how to cook the perfect Christmas turkey, how long you can dunk your biscuit for before it breaks – he took the unusual step of criticising PROs openly in an amusing op-ed article offering up a formula for creating formulae.

They certainly do no favours for science or scientists. The results are intended to bamboozle, and present science as an unobtainable mysterious world of meaningless numbers and jargon.

Here’s the formula he offers:

C = (O x B x BL) + (E/R) + S – !

C (column inches generated)
O (public interest in activity)
B (topicality)
BL (how common activity is)
E (number of days since the last equation appeared)
R (important news events that day)
S (whether attractive model/singer/actor can be photographed alongside story)
! (irritation triggered by formulaic stories)

While many specialist journalists shared his irritation, the blame couldn’t entirely be assigned to the PROs. These stories got massive amounts of national and international press coverage both in print, online, and on broadcast media. If the objective was column inches, they certainly worked. Hungry news editors with less taste and sophistication than hardworking science correspondents lapped them up and demanded more. PROs were just feeding the beast, and perhaps being a little lazy as well – it was easy.

If you’re an account manager working in a PR agency and your client sets you the objective to generate the largest amount of media coverage possible which mentions their name, then why do more.

Even some illustrious science organisations are guilty of responding to criticism by highlighting the thickness of their press cuttings pile and claiming that they secured “over £5million in free advertising for the Society”.

At the Institute of Physics, where I was a press officer at the time, we took this as a signal to stop producing such shallow missives, and start thinking a bit harder about how we generate headlines on science which actually serve the best interests of the scientific community as well as do something meaningful in generating public engagement. We didn’t just want column inches, we wanted to use the media to do something

This also went alongside a mission to stop patronising or talking down to the public about science. A move away from the physics of skateboards and high heel shoes, and towards promoting real physics even if it is hard, and even if many people can’t completely understand it.

There’s a reason so many people read A Brief History of Time or the huge demand for books and articles on the LHC and Higgs Boson. They love hard science or big science and want to be inspired to find out more.

But the tide of PR formulae continued – not every PR agency was as concerned about this as the IoP. In 2009, Simon Singh published a round up of some of the latest efforts and also some of the things PR agencies has asked him to get involved with. My quest for a perfectly awful formula appeared in the Guardian. Here he says:

“Despite the fact that these media-friendly formulae have enough variables to make them look as though they are based on proper research, in most cases they are effectively meaningless. Indeed, I have been approached a couple of times by PR companies who have wanted me to construct similarly cockamamie formulae.”

In promoting his recent book, The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, even Dr. Singh is happy to use the media for his own PR purposes – even using a headline some might balk at (‘Homer Simpson discovered the Higgs Boson ten years ago’). The difference is that these are real formulae which represent some of the greatest questions in maths or physics and so promoting them, even in a slightly silly way, hopefully serves a purpose wider than just selling books.

I’ve also been reminded recently that there’s nothing wrong with science being fun or being used to explain fun or entertaining topics or pastimes (such an an innocent day spent playing Pooh Sticks in a beautiful setting, co-ordinates provided courtesy of Visit England). And I’d agree. Let’s talk about fluid dynamics, surface tension, flow rates, calculating the specific mass of an object, turbulence even. But we don’t need an equation to work out which river to go to.

Although, we might need an equation that helps us calculate the optimum amount of science we can introduce whilst also having fun.

So, let’s not be afraid of hard science even if it is presented in a silly way. If you’re trying to promote a product or a campaign and think science might be able to provide an interesting angle for a story, speak to some scientists and engineers, see what real research is out there, and use that. Don’t take the easy route and opt for an equation knocked up in the space of a single phone call.

Posted by David Reid.