Public relations needs to understand science

Public relations practitioners need to understand science and counsel others to avoid hiding “behind a figleaf of scientific respectability when spinning unpalatable or controversial policies to make them acceptable to voters“.  This is the view of MPs critical of the way science is used in policy – and the lack of recognition for those with scientific backgrounds. I believe there are 3 key reasons for PR communicators to engage themselves better with science:

  1. Avoid writing rubbish, ill-formed, badly spun information 

  2. Help scientists, engineers and others who are not necessarily natural communicators gain the skills and confidence to ensure their enthusiasm and positive work reaches the widest audience

  3. Improve the reputation of PR as not just about puff and fluff.

If we can engage with specialist journalists (or others, who may not be scientifically – or mathematically astute) from an informed position, we can ensure that useful facts and clarity of understanding are reported.  There are many great, positive stories that have science at the heart of them.  But we also need to stand up when under pressure from others to misuse scientific or statistical data.   This applies as much to genuine research as the pseudo-survey stories that PRs believe are good for grabbing headlines.  You should not stretch the truth for a good story –  and be prepared to argue against dumbing down or twisting the evidence.  I know it is tempting to always look for the good angle, but this road has led to the current public ignorance of risk, in particular.


Those behind campaigns such as Stop Climate Chaos were accused last Saturday on the Radio 4 Today programme by Professor Mike Hulme as using “rhetorically exaggerated” language.  Adam Hart-Davies argued for “this type of hype” to get “the politicians up off their backsides and actually do something” – but this cry wolf narrative strategy is foolish – and often fails, as the old fable or the Iraq dossier prove. 

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.