Show Summary Details

Page of

 PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, COMMUNICATION (communication.oxfordre.com). (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 23 July 2017

Public Relations in Health and Risk Communication

Summary and Keywords

Research on public relations (PR) in health and risk message design and processing is a small but persistent area of publication within the broader fields of science/health journalism, health communication, and public understanding of science. PR scholars define their field as the creation of two-way communication that emphasizes understanding of the organization’s position among stakeholders like journalists or the general public. In health, medicine, and science, PR is understood to be a bridge between scientists or scientific organizations and journalists, who tell scientific stories to the public. Most studies of science-related PR emphasize that it encourages a positive perception of science in general and scientists or scientific organizations in particular. This emphasis on a positive image for the scientific organization leads to mistrust of PR professionals by journalists.

PR in health, medicine, and science consists of two areas. The first involves crisis PR, where the PR professional works to either prevent or respond to an emergency situation. This begins with environmental scanning and then creating plans to anticipate potential crises by considering ongoing political, social, environmental, and technological developments. The second area consists of science popularization, where the PR office provides journalists with story ideas and information that they can use to write their stories. Much of this information is provided in the form of press releases. Research has shown that press releases increase the amount of coverage of scientific and medical findings, and scholars are examining the ways in which press releases contribute to journalistic reportage and the situations in which the efforts of PR offices are frustrated.

Keywords: public relations (PR), science journalism, environmental scanning, crisis, science popularization, press release

Understanding the Role of Public Relations (PR) in Health and Risk Communication

Journalism has been a key site for communicating issues in health, medicine, and science to various nonscientific, or lay, audiences (Alcíbar, 2008; Brewer & Ley, 2010; Fursich & Lester, 1996; Peláez & Díaz, 2007; Spoel, Goforth, Cheu, & Peason, 2008; Wilcox, 2003). Yet, science journalists must have a channel through which they are informed about topics in health, science, and medicine. While personal relationships between scientists and journalists and close reading of scientific publications are two avenues through which journalists are informed, public relations (PR) provides another informational resource for journalists. PR exists in an intermediary or bridging position between two institutions (i.e., the disciplines that constitute journalism and health, medicine, and science) that have different sets of expectations and demands about what ought to be communicated and how it ought to be communicated (Fjæstad, 2007). This position is complicated further by the shifting economic situation of journalism and evolving media platforms (e.g., from newspapers to television to web and social media) that alter the priorities of both scientists and journalists (Bauer & Gregory, 2007; Göpfert, 2007; Trench, 2007; see also Marconi, 2004, pp. 189–204). Furthermore, PR professionals have an obligation to the organization for whom they work, whether that organization is a government institution, a for-profit company, or a nonprofit organization, which influences how they respond to the respective demands of scientists and journalists (Baines, Egan, & Jefkins, 2004; Marconi, 2004; Trench, 2007, pp. 134–135). To make sense of the role that PR can play in health and risk message design requires three things: an understanding of the PR field; the role of science and health PR as an intermediary between science and journalism or the lay public; and the ways in which PR professional try to fulfill that role. This article offers a brief description of PR generally. It then outlines the context for PR in health, science, and medicine: specifically, scientific expectations around health and science communication and the relationship between journalism and PR as a whole. It then details some of the issues faced by PR when it must be practiced in crisis settings and then in routine (i.e., noncrisis) situations, with its reliance on press releases.

PR Defined

Public relations (PR) encompasses multiple types of communication and roles, and depending on the organization, it can be defined as a department focused on managing any of the following: media or press relations, government affairs, employee relations, promotional efforts, and speechwriting (Baines et al., 2004; Marconi, 2004). In the popular imagination, the term PR often connotes spin, lobbying, and sometimes outright deception (Baines et al., 2004; Marconi, 2004; Swann, 2010). Definitions produced by scholars and practitioners of PR emphasize more responsible or ethical visions of the field. An early definition, developed at the World Assembly of Public Relations held in Mexico City in 1978, said that PR was “the art and social science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organizational leaders, and implementing planned programs of action which serve both the organization’s and the public’s interest” (Baines et al., 2004, p. 7; Swann, 2010, p. 2). PR scholars still draw from Grunig and Hunt’s (1984) seminal typology of the field, which valorized two-way, symmetrical communication focused on adjusting the relationship between an organization and its public as the acme of effective and ethical PR.

Building from these early definitions, more recent texts on PR highlight qualities implied in Grunig and Hunt’s focus on it as two-way, symmetrical communication. Multiple examples exist, but the following are two exemplars of this trend. Baine, Egan, and Jefkins (2004, p. 10) defined the primary goal of PR as understanding:

Organizations are never able to please all of the people all of the time. But they can achieve understanding, amongst their major publics, which is very different from approval … The task [of PR] is to move public opinion from downright hostility through prejudice, apathy, and ignorance towards interest, acceptance, sympathy, and ultimately empathy.

In addition to understanding, Swann (2010, p. 2) emphasized managing relationships and trust: “Public relations practitioners are experts in managing the communication programs for an organization that promote mutual understanding and trust.” The groups with whom PR professionals must create understanding and trust are manifold: they include the public, the media, investors, employees, potential employees, consumers, fans (of a product or sports franchise), governments, and communities wherein organizational offices or production facilities are housed (Marconi, 2004; Swann, 2010). In all these situations, those who write or research about PR often take great pains to emphasize ethical practices and existing codes of conduct for professionals as an anodyne to the tarnished perceptions that many have of PR as deception and spin (Baines et al., 2004; Marconi, 2004; Swann, 2010). These general qualities of PR are worth noting against the unique demands placed on it in the context of health, science, and risk communication.

PR in Health, Science, and Risk Contexts

Scholarship on health, science, and risk communication tends to characterize public relations (PR) and its practitioners as mediators who bridge the divide between scientists and journalists, thereby facilitating communication between the lay public and scientists (Bauer & Bucchi, 2007; Dunwoody & Ryan, 1983; Furlan, 2012; Hansen, 1994; Len-Rios et al., 2009; Viswanath et al., 2008; Weigold, 2001). Yet research on PR in health and science contexts has been infrequent: Weigold’s (2001) review of the science communication literature identified only three studies conducted up to that point on public relations and science communication. While publication of research that specifically highlights health and science PR increased in the early 21st century, the number of studies has remained relatively low compared to the overall amount of research published in health and science communication generally (e.g., Brechman, Lee, & Cappella, 2009; McInerney, Bird, & Nucci, 2004; Riesch & Spiegelhalter, 2011; Woloshin & Schwartz, 2002; Woloshin, Schwartz, Casella, Kennedy, & Larson, 2009). The lack of studies specifically emphasizing PR in health and science contexts might be a result of the tension between the PR of science (i.e., the promotion of a scientific/medical organization) versus the public communication of science (or the effort to educate the public about scientific research). On one hand, the role of PR as a mediator between scientists or health professionals and nonspecialist audiences like journalists and the lay public is valorized, which dovetails with the public communication of science perspective, but on the other hand, PR professionals usually exist on the lower rungs of the hierarchy in scientific, health, and medical organizations, thus lacking the organizational power necessary to influence others and the institutional power to influence others effectively, which means that their work will be driven by the institutional values of their superiors instead of the educational mission of public science communication (Weigold, 2001). In addition, the popular negative connotations of public relations as involving spin and deception might sour the attitudes of science communicators and scholars of science communication, whose public communication of science perspective emphasizes truthful (or accurate) translation of science into popular vernaculars.

Bauer and Gregory (2007) described this tension as the result of a structural transition in the practices of communicating scientific and medical information. Originally, public communication operated in a mode of “old regime” science communication, characterized by a mission of “communicating scientists’ educational mission,” but it has now moved to a new regime or mode that they characterized as “PUS [Public Understanding of Science], Inc.” whose mission is “promotion of the image of science” (Bauer & Gregory, 2007, p. 44). They also argued that this shift was driven by a change in topics covered by the media and by the changing practices of medical and scientific organizations. First, reporting on science shifted from “the reporting of state and ‘public’ technologies such as nuclear power and space exploration to the reporting of commercial and ‘private’ technologies such as biotechnology” (Bauer & Gregory, 2007, p. 35). Second, science and health organizations began to promote their public images and the public image of science in response to the increasingly negative view of scientific and medical fields in the 1970s and 1980s (Bauer & Gregory, 2007, pp. 38–40; see also Franklin, 2007; Horst, 2013; Stilgoe, Lock, & Wilsdon, 2014; Weigold, 2001, p. 167).

Alongside shifts from science journalism to certain modes of public communication of science, the persistence of “deficit model” thinking among professionals in health, medicine, and science, practitioners of science communication (e.g., journalists), and funders of science communication efforts might also influence the perceived tension between the PR of science and the public communication of science. Deficit or “scientific literacy” views of communicating health, medicine, and science emphasize that the public lacks knowledge of science, and the role of science communication is the faithful translation of scientific information in order to improve public understanding (Bauer, Allum, & Miller, 2007; Irwin, 2014; Logan, 2001). Surveys of scientists and science journalists have shown that both groups frame communicating science to the public as an attempt to remedy deficits in public knowledge through the clear, accurate transmission of information in a manner that maintains the integrity of knowledge from the original scientific context (Besley & Tanner, 2011; Ruth, Lundy, Telg, & Irani, 2005; Treise & Weigold, 2002). The deficit model was also a core component of many early studies in the public understanding of science and science communication (Amend & Secko, 2012; Bauer et al., 2007; Einsiedel, 2007; Gross, 1994; Logan, 2001), but models of science communication that imply a greater degree of interactivity and bidirectional communication between lay publics and scientists have developed (Bauer et al., 2007; Gross, 1994; Irwin, 2014; Logan, 2001; Wagner, 2007). Yet, funders of efforts at public outreach on scientific and health-related issues often frame their efforts using language that is reflective of deficit models (Irwin, 2014; Stilgoe et al., 2014): As Brossard and Lewenstein (2010, p. 32) noted, “Outreach projects tend to use the Deficit Model approach as a backbone.”

Overall, PR work in health, risk, and scientific contexts is viewed with some suspicion. While some of these attitudes might derive from how people conceive science communication, these attitudes might be influenced by reactions to the PR professional in scientific and medical organizations. Studies of scientists and journalists report mixed views of PR offices, especially in their assessments of the PR office’s ability to communicate effectively and the assessment of the PR office’s institutional and professional allegiances (Amend & Secko, 2012; Dunwoody & Ryan, 1983; Furlan, 2012; Hansen, 1994; Len-Rios et al., 2009; Viswanath et al., 2008). Journalists react with suspicion to the work of PR professionals that circulates independent of them through the Internet. For example, in discussing the impact of the Internet on science journalism, Trench (2007, pp. 134–135) warned that scientific organizations now publish stories about their work online: “The formats these institutional sites use are often those of ‘news,’ but the purpose is much less that of providing accessible information on matters of public relevance that it is of boosting the profile and reputation of the organization.” This attitude is reflected in the work of Bauers and Gregory (2007, p. 44), who observed, “The modes of reporting and attention to issues are now more the outcome of strategic public relations than the older journalistic agendas of investigation, education, and enlightenment”; for a less pessimistic read of this situation, see Viswanath et al. (2008).

A number of studies produced by scholars in science journalism and the public understanding of science view journalism and public relations as operating in a zero-sum game, where increasing use of PR materials in science journalism and public communication of science indicates that journalism is being manipulated or parasitized by PR materials and the professionals who peddle them (Bauer & Gregory, 2007; Göpfert, 2007). Others emphasize that journalism and PR exist in a symbiotic relationship that enables both of them, so long as they can maintain their respective independence (Göpfert, 2007; Wehmeier, 2008). These studies all frame PR as a practice by research organizations (both nonprofit and for-profit), medical and scientific journals, government-based organizations like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF), and other institutions of offering prepackaged stories to journalists, who for reasons of simplicity or lack of resources merely repeat what has been provided them.

This fits what Bauer and Gregory (2007, p. 33) called “source-driven reportage of science” and Bucchi and Mazzolini (2007, p. 67) described as “science-popularization”; see also Viswanath et al. (2008). Stories in this source-driven or popularization mode highlight a positive spin on recent health- and medicine-related research, and journalists are often prompted or informed about the story by PR professionals through personal contacts, press releases, or prepackaged stories (see also Coyaud, 2007; Furlan, 2012; Len-Rios et al., 2009; Massarani, Buys, Amorim, & Veneu, 2007). Bucchi and Mazzolini (2007) distinguished this from “science-as-news,” which they define as being driven by controversy, and where the role for PR is less clear. Yet closer examination reveals that PR has a role to play in both of these categories of public communication of health, science, and risk.

Science-as-News and Crisis PR

Science-as-news describes “breaking news” situations where journalism is produced under conditions of developing or ongoing crisis. Scholars of science journalism typically view public relations (PR) as not having a role in these situations, and typically most journalists and lay publics do not perceive the story as related specifically to health, medicine, or science. As Weigold, 2001, p. 167) observed, “A story on a proposal to build a nuclear power plant may be viewed as a political story, a big-business story, or an economic story as easily as a science story. The importance of science or scientists to many science-related stories may be quite small.” Science-as-news can potentially disrupt the source-driven development of health and science news for two reasons. First, science-as-news stories might be developed by nonspecialist journalists (i.e., those who do not have a specialized job of covering health, medicine, or science). Second, the story might be developed using standard news-gathering routines that scientific organizations and PR professionals do not normally employ. In studies, these stories are the exemplar for journalism that disrupts the source-driven, science-popularization forms of health and science journalism. Many studies identify environmental crises of the 1970s, such as Love Canal and the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, as fueling the type of story that emphasizes traditional news gathering and subverts the attempts of scientific organizations to drive the health and science news agenda (Amend & Secko, 2012; Bauer & Bucchi, 2007; Franklin, 2007; Weigold, 2001).

For many researchers who study health and science journalism, breaking news stories disrupt the long-term process whereby PR works to create positive images of science in general, as well as specific scientific organizations. Organizations cannot anticipate a nuclear meltdown, an environmental crisis, a pandemic, or events like the Tylenol scare (when bottles of Tylenol were laced with potassium cyanide in September 1982 in Chicago, Illinois). Yet, scholars of science journalism (and science journalists themselves) who have made these claims offered a view of “crisis” and “breaking news” as events that cannot be anticipated and thus influenced by PR. This view of crises is contradicted by work on crisis PR. As Swann (2010, p. 111) noted, “Most crises are not unforeseen ‘acts of God’ … hindsight shows that most crises simmered for months—even years—before boiling over onto the front page.” Sometimes these crises are the results of organizational practices: Some of those practices might be unethical, but all of them can be known on some level by the organization (Baines et al., 2004; Marconi, 2004; Stokes, 2005).

Organizations can—and often do—prepare for a range of crises, even if the exact form that a crisis takes cannot be anticipated. Baines et al. (2004, p. 327) encouraged PR professionals to employ “the three P’s of crises management—prevention, preparation, and provision” (also see Marconi, 2004, pp. 266–269). In trying to prevent or prepare for potential crises, organizations (whether public or private; for-profit or nonprofit) should engage in some form of environmental scanning (Swann, 2010). According to Albright (2004, p. 40),

Environmental scanning is the internal communication of external information about issues that may potentially influence an organization’s decision-making process. Environmental scanning focuses on the identification of emerging issues, situations, and potential pitfalls that may affect an organization’s future.

(2004, p. 40; see also Choo, 2001; Morrison, 1992)

The goal of environmental scanning is to identify external political, social, legal, technological, scientific, and environmental trends and assess how and to what degree these trends are potential threats or opportunities for the organization. This information is used to modify the organization’s current management and practices and to create contingency plans in case of a potential crisis.

Ideally, some of the planning implemented following environmental scanning might prevent crises from occurring, but not all crises can be prevented, so the process of environmental scanning can also allow the organization to prepare for some crises. Preparation can take a number of forms, but it typically involves creating well-developed plans for communication in the face of numerous contingencies. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed plans for public communication and outreach in the case of a bioterror attack using smallpox (Swann, 2010, pp. 118–121). Other forms of health and risk communication around crises involve preemptive messages, like those encouraging disaster preparedness on the part of individuals, families, and communities (Adame & Miller, 2015; Kapucu, 2008; Paek, Hilyard, Freimuth, Barge, & Mindlin, 2010). When a crisis does occur, most research suggests that organizations should designate a single spokesperson to ensure that the organization’s message is effectively communicated, monitor ongoing news coverage of the event to assess how well the message is being disseminated, and to maintain contact with key external and internal audiences, such as employees, customers, media, the public, and investors/shareholders (Baines et al., 2004; Swann, 2010). While a crisis might be an unpredictable event, many crises can be anticipated, and PR professionals play a key role in helping to anticipate, plan for, and respond to a crisis.

Science-Popularization

Science-popularization involves stories generated by sources—institutions and their public relations (PR) offices—who then inform journalists about the stories and provide substantial content. These science-popularization stories generally offer positive and straightforward stories about medical and scientific advancements that improve people’s quality of life (Dunwoody, 1979; Hansen, 1994; Viswanath et al., 2008). PR in the context of science-popularization is conceived as a bridge between scientists and journalists, although some PR materials can target the general public as well as journalists (see Stokes, 2008). Often, these positive stories are part of much larger campaigns that include speeches, interactive exhibits, public debates, and materials developed specifically for journalists, like press releases (Arata, 2007). The Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s national academy of science, in 2005 engaged in a media relations campaign “to tackle misrepresentation of the scientific evidence on climate change in the UK national print, broadcast, and online media,” which included staged events, such as talks by prominent society members; a media guide; and letters to the editor rebutting what they saw as errors in news reporting (Ward, 2007). They also made prominent scientists available to “friendly” journalists (i.e., those who consistently reported on science and the Royal Society in a positive light) for exclusive interviews (Ward, 2007). Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (two prominent genetics research institutions) both promoted genetic research on the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) by producing, respectively, a series of talks by James Watson, codiscover of DNA’s structure, and a series of interactive science exhibits (Terrill, 2007).

Studies have shown that science-popularization is an effective mode of PR work. Many of these studies focus on either generating an idea for a story or providing information to flesh out an existing idea. In a nationwide survey of journalists, Viswanath et al. (2008) found that over half of the respondents said that story ideas often or very often come from one-on-one contact with individuals (i.e., scientists, PR professionals, etc.), and 42% said that story ideas often or very often come from press conferences and press releases. Another research group found that non-PR sources, such as other news organizations, members of their own organization, and their own personal interest, generated story ideas, but the journalists surveyed also indicated that press releases from universities and nonprofit organizations might spur the creation of health and science news stories (Len-Rios et al., 2009).

PR professionals who can accommodate the professional constraints of science journalists are viewed as valuable sources of information. Studies have also shown that journalists work within a variety of organizational and professional constraints such as daily deadlines, news-gathering routines, and assumptions about their audiences’ interests and desires (Bauer & Gregory, 2007; Gans, 1979; Hansen, 1994; Schuefele, 2000). Len-Rios et al. (2009) found that journalists rated qualities associated with PR training highly, such as providing accurate information, explaining that information effectively, and responding to journalistic requests in a timely fashion (see also Arata, 2007). In her study of Australian health and science journalists, Furlan (2012, p. 108) observed:

It appears that PR sources who have proved themselves to journalists that they understand the immediacy of news, the requirements of different media (for example, that television reporters need stories with pictures), and who deliver information promptly and accurately as required, are more likely to be used on an ongoing basis.

Studies of health and science journalism have shown that PR efforts at science-popularization can be effective in generating journalistic stories and providing sources for journalists, especially when those PR efforts respond to the constraints placed on journalists by deadlines, news-gathering routines, and other factors. These general findings around PR and its science-popularization efforts also hold true for one key PR “product”—the press release, discussed next.

Press Releases

While a number of activities might constitute a science-popularization effort, almost all attempts at science popularization incorporate press releases. Swaying public opinion to promote an organization usually means persuading journalists to consider the stories that public relations (PR) offices produce and to report them in ways that reinforce the positive image that the PR office wishes to cultivate. Part of this task involves translating or highlighting elements of health, science, and medicine that might be of interest to reporters (see Arata, 2007, pp. 179–180). This poses a potential challenge for PR professionals because they find themselves caught between scientific demands for clear transmission of information and journalists’ desire for interesting stories. Biomedical PR must balance competing rhetorical demands.

To accomplish that balancing act, the text of a press release must be written in ways that journalists will find compelling and useful: In other words, press releases on health and science topics must emulate the qualities of science journalism. As Radford (2007, p. 97) argued, “A newspaper is a vehicle for news … But above all, it is a story-telling machine. Readers think a newspaper is full of items of news: newspapermen, however, think of news items as stories.” As Fahnestock (1993) argued, science journalism consists of a rhetoric of praise rather than a straightforward recounting of a scientific research report in nonspecialist language: as a result, they often employ appeals to possible applications of medicine and science and appeals to our sense of wonder. The appeal to application is often combined with a “human interest” story to attract reader attention, especially with health- and medicine-related topics (Amend & Secko, 2012; Lynch, Parrott, Hopkin, & Myers, 2011; Viswanath et al., 2008).

Appealing to the senses of wonder and curiosity often occurs with nonmedical topics where a clear application is less obvious: Often, these stories are framed as mysteries, where the scientist plays the role of a detective following the trail of evidence/clues that lead to the scientific conclusion written in the research report (Curtis, 1994). In addition, a news story must be hyped to get the attention of editors, and then readers: Because science does not develop within the 24-hour news cycle, articles might “hype” or exaggerate the importance of a scientific finding in order to draw the attention to the story, but then balance the hype with more details later in the body of the news story (Amend & Secko, 2012; Bubela et al., 2009; Caulfield & Bubela, 2004; Hansen, 1994; McInerney et al., 2004; Riesch & Spiegelhalter, 2011; Wilcox, 2003), but researchers have found that the source of hype in news stories are typically scientists whom a journalist has interviewed (Bubela et al., 2009).

In addition to reflecting the concerns and values of journalists, PR of health, science, and medicine must reflect the concerns of scientific stakeholders. Surveys of scientists have shown they view communicating science to the public as an attempt to remedy deficits in public knowledge through the clear, accurate transmission of information in a manner that maintains the integrity of knowledge from the original scientific context (Besley & Tanner, 2011; Ruth et al., 2005; Treise & Weigold, 2002; Woloshin & Schwartz, 2002). In other words, the products of science PR—the press releases—must also act as didactic pieces that educate nonscientists about scientific research. This can create a tension with the journalist standards that a press release must address, as the hype and links to public values that are required to appeal to journalists potentially conflict with a faithful representation of the science (Lynch, Bennett, Luntz, Toy, & VanBenschoten, 2014). In other words, PR professionals working in the areas of health, medicine, science, and the environment operate betwixt and between two groups of stakeholders who can make potentially conflicting demands on them.

Studies of press releases focus on one of three areas: the release’s role in facilitating dissemination of information, the fidelity of the release to the source or to scientific standards, or the role of press releases in the broader ecology of public communication in the fields of health and science. These categories capture primary trends in research and are somewhat idealized, as some research, especially more recently published research, combines aspects of each of these three areas. The first area of research involves some of the earliest studies of press releases, which assessed the capacity of press releases to facilitate dissemination of health- and science-related information. A study by Entwistle (1995) indicated that more than 80% of the articles mentioned in the British press during the time period studied had originally been included in press releases from academic peer review journals. In a later study, deSemir, Ribas, and Revuelta (1998, p. 295) found “an association between the appearance of a journal article in the journal’s press release and subsequent publication of a story on the same topic in a national newspaper” (see also Bartlett, Sterne, & Egger, 2002). More recent studies typically incorporate some assessment of dissemination into a project focused more on one of the two other areas of study. For example, McInerney, Bird, and Nucci (2004) assessed the science communication about genetically modified foods and noted that many stories established in press releases and through other mechanisms were disseminated via news wire services to journalists but were not circulated beyond the wire services to a broader, nonjournalist public. Lynch, Bennett, Luntz, Toy, and VanBenschoten (2014) noted in a study of PR promotion of stem cell research at two institutions that one-third of the press releases produced made it through wire services and journalists’ own processes of story selection and development to reach the broader, lay public.

The second area of research focuses on the fidelity of the press release to the original scientific publication, or its fidelity to standards of reporting scientific research results to other specialist audiences. Often, these research articles frame their study as an assessment of a press release’s “quality” (Woloshin & Schwartz, 2002; Woloshin et al., 2009). Woloshin and Schwartz (2002) studied the process of publicizing research in medical journals. They argued, “Medical journal press releases are perhaps the most direct way that that journals communicate with the media. Although press releases provide an opportunity to help journalists get the stories ‘right,’ there has been little scrutiny of the release process or quality” (2002, pp. 2856–2857). They conducted interviews with press officers at seven journals, with the highest impact factors as measured by the Institute for Scientific Information to assess production practices and standards for assuring the fidelity of the press release to the original report. They then analyzed 127 press releases from those journals and found that oversight and quality control practices varied at the seven journals. They also reported less than a quarter of press releases mentioned study limitations or industry funding, 65% quantified the results being reported, and only 55% presented a base rate for the conditions studied, which they argue would reduce potential exaggeration of the results. They concluded, “Press releases provide an opportunity for journals to influence how the research is translated into the news … Our findings suggest journals could make more of this opportunity; the press releases we studied frequently presented data in exaggerated formats, and failed to highlight study limitations or conflicts of interest” (Woloshin & Schwartz, 2002, p. 2858).

Woloshin et al. (2009) studied press releases from 20 academic centers and concluded, “Press releases issued by 20 academic medical centers frequently promoted preliminary research or inherently limited human studies without providing basic details or cautions needed to judge the meaning, relevance, or validity of the science” (p. 616). As in Woloshin and Schwartz’s (2002) paper, study limitations and financial conflicts of interest were underreported, while exaggeration of the scope and import of results was common. While Woloshin et al. (2009) found fault with the process by which press releases were developed, they also criticized investigators, who they argued “could forgo requesting releases for studies with obvious limitations and review releases before dissemination, taking care to temper their tone (particularly their own quotes, which we often found overly enthusiastic)” (p. 617). Brechman et al. (2009) examined the central claims of press releases and subsequent newspaper articles based on those press releases about cancer genetics in order to assess the degree to which scientific findings are exaggerated and problematic attitudes about genetics are reinforced. They found that genetic research was presented in a deterministic fashion in more than two-thirds of the cases that they assessed, but that “these instances of distortion are not unilaterally attributable to journalistic practices or the nature of public relations writing” (Brechman et al., 2009, p. 467). Rather, they identified the need for both PR professionals and journalists to “‘sell’ their stories to their respective audiences” as the source of distortion in scientific knowledge (p. 467). While they did not incorporate the original scientific articles into their study, Brechman et al. (2009) raised issues of fidelity to scientific standards by framing genetic determinism as a quality inserted into stories by PR professionals and journalists, rather than something found in the original scientific source.

The third area of research examines issues of how stories are framed, downplaying issues of fidelity to scientific findings. Lynch et al. (2014) examined press releases and subsequent journalistic coverage of stem cell research, and they framed the study against the competing demands that both scientists and journalists place on PR professionals and the press releases that they create. They found that the majority of the press releases produced incorporated didactic material that taught readers about the research being conducted, thus conforming to the desires that scientists have for public communication. Furthermore, the didactic material from press releases made up a substantial proportion of the subsequent news coverage, although those press releases that paired the didactic material with strong appeals to application that could “sell” a story were most commonly covered by journalists.

Yet, the majority of studies in this area, rather than discussing the interplay of PR and journalism, highlight the divergence between PR framings of events or scientific reports and the subsequent media framing of those same materials. McInerney et al. (2004) traced the development of stories about genetically modified foods. They identified press releases about a brief communication in Nature about the impact of genetically modified corn on monarch butterfly caterpillars as the reason that U.S. coverage of genetic modification increased markedly. Five organizations created press releases about the study: Cornell University (home of the researchers), Nature, Greenpeace, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (McInerney et al., 2004, pp. 64–65). The study argued that the image of the monarch butterfly, and even the possibility that genetically modified corn could harm it, were so powerful that, once taken up by activist groups like Greenpeace, the details of the science ceased to matter (p. 67).

Rudy and Ten Eyck (2006) examined press releases and news coverage of the 1998 deal to fund research on plant and microbial biology between Novartis and the University of California, Berkeley. They found that university press releases sidestepped controversial issues about academic freedom, corporate influence on public universities, and biotechnology, while popular press stories emphasized the concerns about biotechnology and corporate influence on the university. They concluded, “Complexities of academic freedom, university–corporate relations, and genetic engineering are deep and various, and unlikely to be settled in a 1000-word report or column in a national newspaper” (Rudy & Ten Eyck, 2006, p. 355).

Riesch and Speigelhalter (2011) examined two cases of public health reports in the United Kingdom and the subsequent media reactions to them. The first case was a report on alcohol consumption, and the second was a report on nutrition influences on cancer. The story on alcohol consumption received media attention only after the authoring organization produced estimates of dangerous drinking behaviors that localized the problem to two specific towns. The second story, on healthy food habits and their influence on cancer, received increased public attention after the story was reframed to make the specific claim that eating bacon was dangerous to one’s health. Riesch and Spiegelhalter explained the original lack of attention and then the mediated outcry over the research as a reflection of the two sides of “the prevention paradox”—that is, from a public health perspective of maximizing benefits for society, it makes sense to persuade many people engaging in low-risk behaviors to practice slightly lower-risk behaviors, but for the individuals, the shift to a lower-risk behavior does not provide them a clear benefit (Riesch & Spiegelhalter, 2011; see also Rose, 1992). Scientific reports and the press releases from scientific organizations emphasized the public health side of the paradox, while journalists emphasized the individual’s side of the paradox. Riesch and Spiegelhalter concluded that when this paradox is combined with the missteps in communication by the scientific organizations, public controversy is the natural outcome. This highlights a broader lesson for all science communicators: “Risks may mean something different for the individual newspaper reader than they do for the scientists concerned with public health” (Riesch & Spiegelhalter, 2011, p. 62).

Conclusion

Research around public relations (PR) in health and risk message design and processing is a small but persistent area of publication within the broader fields of science/health journalism, health communication, and public understanding of science. While some studies have been found in more traditional PR research outlets, the majority of this research emphasizes health, medicine, and risk more than PR, which leads to their release in academic publications emphasizing the former set of topics.

Currently, research in this area emphasizes the tension between science journalism and science PR in a number of ways, ranging from naming different types of stories—science-as-news versus science-popularization—as well as ongoing suspicion about the relative power that PR professionals have over journalists and the risks that this entails to a deficit model understanding of health and science communication and its focus on accurate transmission. Future work can emphasize more interactive models for the relationship between science and health professionals, PR professionals, and journalists, as well as continuing examinations of press releases while extending extant research into other means by which PR professionals try to create understanding of their organizations and their organization’s mission.

Primary Research Resources

Researchers interested in studying press releases about health, science, and medicine can consult a number of potential sources for primary research materials. Most academic health centers have a media or PR office that archives their press releases. Press releases can also be found on PRNewswire, which can be accessed online through most academic libraries, or Eureka Alert, which is an online distribution service for press releases and other news items managed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Additional Resources

Journals like Science Communication and Public Understanding of Science are the most common locations where one can find this research, but it also can be found in multiple outlets. While there are books and textbooks devoted to public relations (PR) practice as a whole, there are few books devoted solely to health and science-related PR. The most comprehensive book on the topic is Bauer and Bucchi’s (2007) Journalism, Science, and Society, which has a strong focus on Europe (especially the United Kingdom and Italy) but offers material from the United States, Australia, and Japan as well.

Further Reading

Bauer, M. W., & Bucchi, M. (Eds.). (2007). Journalism, science, and society: Science communication between news and public relations. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Bauer, M. W., & Gregory, J. (2007). From journalism to corporate communication in post-war Britain. In M. W. Bauer & M. Bucchi (Eds.), Journalism, science and society: Science communication between news and public relations (pp. 33–52). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Dunwoody, S., & Ryan, M. (1983). Press information persons as mediators between scientists and journalists. Journalism Quarterly, 60, 647–656.Find this resource:

Furlan, P. (2012). Who can you trust? Medical news, the public, and what reporters think about public relations sources. Pacific Journalism Review, 18, 102–117.Find this resource:

Len-Rios, M. E., Hinnant, A., Park, S.-A., Cameron, G. T., Frisby, C. M., & Lee, Y. (2009). Health news agenda building: Journalists’ perceptions of the role of public relations. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 86, 315–331.Find this resource:

McInerney, C., Bird, N., & Nucci, M. (2004). The flow of scientific knowledge from lab to the lay public: The case of genetically modified food. Science Communication, 26, 44–74.Find this resource:

Stokes, A. Q. (2005). Metabolife’s meaning: A call for the constitutive study of public relations. Public Relations Review, 31, 556–565.Find this resource:

Stokes, A. Q. (2008). The paradox of pharmaceutical empowerment: Healthology and online health public relations. In H. M. Zoller & M. J. Dutta (Eds.), Emerging perspectives in health communication (pp. 335–356). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Woloshin, S., & Schwartz, L. M. (2002). Press releases: Translating research into news. Journal of the American Medical Association, 287, 2856–2858.Find this resource:

Woloshin, S., Schwartz, L. M., Casella, S. L., Kennedy, A. T., & Larson, R. J. (2009). Press releases by academic medical centers: Not so academic? Annals of Internal Medicine, 150, 613–618.Find this resource:

References

Adame, B. J., & Miller, C. H. (2015). Vested interest, disaster preparedness, and strategic campaign message design. Health Communication, 30, 271–281.Find this resource:

Albright, K. S. (2004). Environmental scanning: Radar for success. Information Management Journal, 38(3), 38–45.Find this resource:

Alcíbar, M. (2008). Human cloning and the Raelians: Media coverage and the rhetoric of science. Science Communication, 30, 236–265.Find this resource:

Amend, E., & Secko, D. M. (2012). In the face of critique: A metasynthesis of the experiences of journalists covering health and science. Science Communication, 34, 241–282.Find this resource:

Arata, M. (2007). PR for the physics of matter: Tops … and flops. In M. W. Bauer & M. Bucchi (Eds.), Journalism, science, and society: Science communication between news and public relations (pp. 173–182). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Baines, P., Egan, J., & Jefkins, F. (2004). Public relations. Burlington, MA: Elsevier.Find this resource:

Bartlett, C., Sterne, J., & Egger, M. (2002). What is newsworthy? Longitudinal study of the reporting of medical research in two British newspapers. British Medical Journal, 325, 81–84.Find this resource:

Bauer, M. W., Allum, N., & Miller, S. (2007). What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research? Liberating and expanding the agenda. Public Understanding of Science, 16, 79–95.Find this resource:

Bauer, M. W., & Bucchi, M. (Eds.). (2007). Journalism, science, and society: Science communication between news and public relations. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Bauer, M. W., & Gregory, J. (2007). From journalism to corporate communication in post-war Britain. In M. W. Bauer & M. Bucchi (Eds.), Journalism, science, and society: Science communication between news and public relations (pp. 33–52). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Besley, J. C., & Tanner, A. H. (2011). What science communication scholars think about training scientists to communicate. Science Communication, 33, 239–263.Find this resource:

Brechman, J., Lee, C., & Cappella, J. N. (2009). Lost in translation? A comparison of cancer-genetics reporting in the press release and its subsequent coverage. Science Communication, 30, 453–474.Find this resource:

Brewer, P. R., & Ley, B. L. (2010). Media use and public perceptions of DNA evidence. Science Communication, 32, 93–117.Find this resource:

Brossard, D., & Lewenstein, B. V. (2010). A critical appraisal of models of public understanding of science: Using practice to inform theory. In L. Kahlor & P. A. Stout (Eds.), Communicating science: New agendas in science communication (pp. 11–39). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Bubela, T., Nisbet, M. C., Borchelt, R., Brunger, F., Critchley, C., Einsiedel, E., et al. (2009). Science communication reconsidered. Nat Biotech, 27(6), 514–518.Find this resource:

Bucchi, M., & Mazzolini, R. G. (2007). Big science, little news: Science coverage in the Italian daily press, 1946–1997. In M. W. Bauer & M. Bucchi (Eds.), Journalism, science, and society: Science communication between news and public relations (pp. 53–70). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Caulfield, T. A., & Bubela, T. M. (2004). Media representations of genetic discoveries: Hype in the headlines? Health Law Review, 12, 53–61.Find this resource:

Choo, C. W. (2001). Environmental scanning as information seeking and organizational learning. Information Research, 7(1), 1–37.Find this resource:

Coyaud, S. (2007). Science stories that cannot be told. In M. W. Bauer & M. Bucchi (Eds.), Journalism, science, and society: Science communication between news and public relations (pp. 109–112). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Curtis, R. (1994). Narrative form and normative force: Baconian story-telling in popular science. Social Studies of Science, 24, 419–461.Find this resource:

De Semir, V., Ribas, C., & Revuelta, G. (1998). Press releases of science journal articles and subsequent newspaper stories on the same topic. Journal of the American Medical Association, 280, 294–295.Find this resource:

Dunwoody, S. (1979). News-gathering behaviors of specialist reporters: A two-level comparison of mass media decision-making. Newspaper Research Journal, 1, 29–41.Find this resource:

Dunwoody, S., & Ryan, M. (1983). Press information persons as mediators between scientists and journalists. Journalism Quarterly, 60, 647–656.Find this resource:

Einsiedel, E. (2007). Editorial: Of publics and science. Public Understanding of Science, 16, 5–6.Find this resource:

Entwistle, V. (1995). Reporting research in medical journals and newspapers. British Medical Journal, 310, 920–923.Find this resource:

Fahnestock, J. (1993). Accommodating science: The rhetorical life of scientific facts. In M. W. McRae (Ed.), The literature of science: Perspectives on popular scientific writing (pp. 17–36). Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.Find this resource:

Fjæstad, B. (2007). Why journalists report science as they do. In M. W. Bauer & M. Bucchi (Eds.), Journalism, science and society: Science communication between news and public relations (pp. 123–132). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Franklin, J. (2007). The end of science journalism. In M. W. Bauer & M. Bucchi (Eds.), Journalism, science, and society: Science communication between news and public relations (pp. 143–156). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Furlan, P. (2012). Who can you trust? Medical news, the public, and what reporters think about public relations sources. Pacific Journalism Review, 18, 102–117.Find this resource:

Fursich, E., & Lester, E. P. (1996). Science journalism under scrutiny: A textual analysis of “Science Times.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 13, 24–43.Find this resource:

Gans, H. (1979). Deciding what’s news: A study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time. New York: Pantheon.Find this resource:

Göpfert, W. (2007). The strength of PR and the weakness of science journalism. In M. W. Bauer & M. Bucchi (Eds.), Journalism, science, and society: Science communication between news and public relations (pp. 215–226). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Gross, A. (1994). The roles of rhetoric in the public understanding of science. Public Understanding of Science, 3, 3–23.Find this resource:

Grunig, J., & Hunt, T. (1984). Managing public relations. New York: CBS College Publishing.Find this resource:

Hansen, A. (1994). Journalistic practices and science reporting in the British press. Public Understanding of Science, 3, 111–134.Find this resource:

Horst, M. (2013). A field of expertise, the organization, or science itself? Scientists’ perception of representing research in public communication. Science Communication, 35(6), 758–779.Find this resource:

Irwin, A. (2014). From deficit to democracy (re-visited). Public Understanding of Science, 23(1), 71–76.Find this resource:

Kapucu, N. (2008). Collaborative emergency management: Better community organizing, better public preparedness and response. Disasters, 32, 239–262.Find this resource:

Len-Rios, M. E., Hinnant, A., Park, S.-A., Cameron, G. T., Frisby, C. M., & Lee, Y. (2009). Health news agenda building: Journalists’ perceptions of the role of public relations. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 86, 315–331.Find this resource:

Logan, R. A. (2001). Science mass communication: Its conceptual history. Science Communication, 23, 135–163.Find this resource:

Lynch, J. A., Bennett, D., Luntz, A., Toy, C., & VanBenschoten, E. (2014). Bridging science and journalism: Identifying the role of public relations in the construction and circulation of stem cell research among laypeople. Science Communication, 36, 479–501.Find this resource:

Lynch, J. A., Parrott, A., Hopkin, R. M., & Myers, M. F. (2011). Media coverage of direct-to-consumer genetic testing. Journal of Genetic Counseling, 20, 486–494.Find this resource:

Marconi, J. (2004). Public relations: The complete guide. Mason, OH: South-Western Educational Publishing.Find this resource:

Massarani, L., Buys, B., Amorim, L. H., & Veneu, F. (2007). Growing, but foreign source dependent: Science coverage in Latin America. In M. W. Bauer & M. Bucchi (Eds.), Journalism, science, and society: Science communication between news and public relations (pp. 71–80). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

McInerney, C., Bird, N., & Nucci, M. (2004). The flow of scientific knowledge from lab to the lay public: The case of genetically modified food. Science Communication, 26, 44–74.Find this resource:

Morrison, J. L. (1992). Environmental scanning. In M. A. Whitely, J. D. Porter, & R. H. Fenske (Eds.), A primer for new institutional researchers (pp. 86–99). Tallahassee, FL: Association for Institutional Research.Find this resource:

Paek, H.-J., Hilyard, K., Freimuth, V., Barge, J. K., & Mindlin, M. (2010). Theory-based approaches to understanding public emergency preparedness: Implications for effective health and risk communication. Journal of Health Communication, 15, 428–444.Find this resource:

Peláez, A. L., & Díaz, J. A. (2007). Science, technology, and democracy: Perspectives about the complex relation between the scientific community, the scientific journalist, and public opinion. Social Epistemology, 21, 55–68.Find this resource:

Radford, T. (2007). Scheherazade: Telling stories, not educating people. In M. W. Bauer & M. Bucchi (Eds.), Journalism, science, and society: Science communication between news and public relations (pp. 95–100). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Riesch, H., & Spiegelhalter, D. J. (2011). “Careless pork costs lives”: Risk stories from science to press release to media. Health, Risk, & Society, 13, 47–64.Find this resource:

Rose, G. (1992). The strategy of preventive medicine. Oxford: Oxford Medical Publications.Find this resource:

Rudy, A., & Ten Eyck, T. A. (2006). Institutional and/versus commercial media coverage: Representations of the University of California, Berkeley–Novartis agreement. Public Understanding of Science, 15, 343–358.Find this resource:

Ruth, A., Lundy, L., Telg, R., & Irani, T. (2005). Trying to relate: Media relations training needs of agricultural scientists. Science Communication, 27, 127–145.Find this resource:

Schuefele, D. (2000). Agenda setting, priming, and framing revisited. Mass Communication & Society, 3, 297–316.Find this resource:

Spoel, P., Goforth, D., Cheu, H., & Peason, D. (2008). Public communication of climate change science: Engaging citizens through apocalyptic narrative explanation. Technical Communication Quarterly, 18, 49–81.Find this resource:

Stilgoe, J., Lock, S. J., & Wilsdon, J. (2014). Why should we promote public engagement with science?Public Understanding of Science, 23(1), 4–15.Find this resource:

Stokes, A. Q. (2005). Metabolife’s meaning: A call for the constitutive study of public relations. Public Relations Review, 31, 556–565.Find this resource:

Stokes, A. Q. (2008). The paradox of pharmaceutical empowerment: Healthology and online health public relations. In H. M. Zoller & M. J. Dutta (Eds.), Emerging perspectives in health communication (pp. 335–356). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Swann, P. (2010). Cases in public relations management. New York: McGraw-Hill.Find this resource:

Terrill, B. (2007). Communication by scientists or stars? In M. W. Bauer & M. Bucchi (Eds.), Journalism, science, and society: Science communication between news and public relations (pp. 183–192). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Treise, D., & Weigold, M. F. (2002). Advancing science communication: A survey of science communicators. Science Communication, 23, 310–322.Find this resource:

Trench, B. (2007). How the Internet changed science journalism. In M. W. Bauer & M. Bucchi (Eds.), Journalism, science, and society: Science communication between news and public relations (pp. 133–142). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Viswanath, K., Blake, K. D., Meissner, H. I., Saiontz, N. G., Mull, C., Freeman, C. S., et al. (2008). Occupational practices and the making of health news: A national survey of U.S. health and medical science journalists. Journal of Health Communication, 13, 759–777.Find this resource:

Wagner, W. (2007). Vernacular science knowledge: Its role in everyday life communication. Public Understanding of Science, 16, 7–22.Find this resource:

Ward, B. (2007). The Royal Society and the debate on climate change. In M. W. Bauer & M. Bucchi (Eds.), Journalism, science, and society: Science communication between news and public relations (pp. 159–172). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Wehmeier, S. (2008). Intereffication approach in public relations. In W. Donsbach (Ed.), The international encyclopedia of communication (pp. 2354–2358). New York: Wiley Blackwell.Find this resource:

Weigold, M. F. (2001). Communicating science: A review of the literature. Science Communication, 23, 164–193.Find this resource:

Wilcox, S. (2003). Cultural context and the conventions of science journalism: Drama and contradiction in media coverage of biological ideas about sexuality. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 20, 225–247.Find this resource:

Woloshin, S., & Schwartz, L. M. (2002). Press releases: Translating research into news. Journal of the American Medical Association, 287, 2856–2858.Find this resource:

Woloshin, S., Schwartz, L. M., Casella, S. L., Kennedy, A. T., & Larson, R. J. (2009). Press releases by academic medical centers: Not so academic? Annals of Internal Medicine, 150, 613–618.Find this resource: