Few would disagree with the assertion that academics are defined by reputation, and that, built up carefully over the course of their careers, these precious reputations inevitably rely on the production of high calibre research. And, while the status-enhancing benefit of such work depends principally on the originality of its content, the way it is released to the wider world has no small part to play.
The harsh truth is that a good reputation is not only the inevitable and justifiable consequence of a lifetime of academic diligence (and brilliance); on the contrary, reputation is fickle and unfair, and sometimes the very best academic research is overlooked or, even worse, turned into an amusing footnote in a tabloid newspaper.
Scientific research in particular is prey to such treatment. We have all seen tongue-in-cheek reports which highlight one aspect out of a much larger body of evidence, turning it, to all intents and purposes, into a piece of trivia. Sadly there seems to be an endless stream of academics whose work is subjected to the ‘reductio ad absurdum’ school of journalism.
So, what can be done to safeguard a piece of research? In my experience, it needs to be very carefully managed which often includes exercising considerable restraint.
A case in point
In working with Newcastle University’s Institute for Ageing and Health on the release of some high profile research on why cells age we knew that the topic could go either way in the media if we didn’t handle it with the utmost care. I suggested offering a joint exclusive to the Today Programme on Radio 4 and the science correspondent of the Financial Times.
Because we had given them an ‘exclusive’, we gave in-depth background briefings to the journalist covering the story which led to it being the lead piece on the Today Programme and the front page of the FT. We didn’t issue it to anyone else.These journalists covered the story responsibly and, when a large number of national newspapers and broadcast media picked up the story the next day, the information was reproduced almost verbatim, including the report which appeared on the front page of The Express. The result was an important piece of research which was widely and responsibly reported.
In the world of public relations, it may seem counter intuitive to be so restrictive; but managing a reputation is an instance of where less really is more.