The relevance of public relations (PR) efforts of scientific organizations for public communication of science is increasingly recognized. PR departments are not mere mediators between scientists and journalists but represent the stakeholder interests of their organizations in the public sphere and are communicative actors themselves. Previous Taiwanese studies focused on university PR in the educational context, whereas the potential function in the communication of research and scientific knowledge received less attention. This study explores how PR departments of academic organizations in Taiwan view their role in the public communication of science. Insights from eleven semistructured interviews with PR officers suggest that public relations departments of academic organizations in Taiwan only half-heartedly contribute to the communication of science. Another interesting finding is that even in the era of social media science, PR still relies heavily on journalism, which in Taiwan lacks professionalism in the communication of science. We suggest a more active role of academic organizations in the public communication of science, pursuing not only marketing or self-presentation goals, but also assuming genuine responsibility for public information about research and scientific knowledge.
摘要:科研組織中的公關事務與科學傳播間的關聯性日益受到重視, 因為組織中的公關部門不僅作為科學家與記者的媒介, 亦代表組織主事者對於公共領域的興趣, 同時也是實質的傳播者。 過去, 臺灣對大學公關的研究集中在教育的情境脈絡, 較少關注公關部門在推廣研究成果及科學知識溝通的潛在功能。 據此, 本研究探討臺灣科研組織的公關部門如何看待他們自己在科學公共傳播中所扮演的角色。 透過與十一位公關工作者的半結構化訪談, 可以看出台灣科研組織的公關部門對於為科學傳播作出貢獻興趣缺缺。 另一個有趣的發現是, 即使在社群媒體時代, 台灣的科研公關事務在很大程度上仍依賴缺乏科學傳播專業的傳統新聞媒體。 本研究建議科研組織扮演更積極的角色對公眾傳播科學, 在追求自我推銷及展示的目標之餘, 體認科研組織對於傳播學術研究與科學知識訊息的職責。
1 Public Relations and Public Communication of Science
Few nowadays dispute the necessity of public communication of science, but the arguments supporting it differ strongly. Some, including many scientists who traditionally cherish knowledge as a value in itself, consider public communication of science an informal learning opportunity for laypeople. Others point to the democratic functions of giving citizens access to scientific expertise relevant for policy issues such as climate change, and of enabling them to participate in science policy and governance. However, researchers and science managers have also become aware of the strategic utility of visibility in the media as a means to gain public support and restore public trust in science (Weingart 2012; Peters 2012; Borchelt and Nielsen 2014). The perceived utility of public communication for science itself has motivated universities and other research organizations to increase their involvement in science communication and to establish special departments responsible for the management of the organizations’ public relations.
Compared with major Western countries, Taiwan was late in the development of science communication in general and the establishment of science PR departments in particular (Cheng 2008). However, a number of initiatives indicate the ambition of Taiwan’s government to spur communication between science and society, showing its recognition of the relevance of science communication. For example, in 2010 the Taiwanese Ministry of Science and Technology established “education of science popularization and communication” as a new disciplinary field for project funding. It was renamed to science, technology, society, and communication in 2016 but still covers project funding of science communication research. In 2017, the Taiwanese Fundamental Science and Technology Act (科學技術基本法修正) was amended with a clause demanding that a certain percentage of the budget of publicly funded research projects be used for the public communication of science. Finally, following the example of other countries (Rödder 2015), a science media center has recently been established in Taiwan to enhance the relationship between science and the media.
For quite some time, the focus on analyzing public communication of science was toward scientists and journalists and their interactions (Friedman, Dunwoody, and Rogers 1987). Scholars considered the scientific community and its culture as a dominant social context influencing scientists’ attitudes and behavior toward public communication (Dunwoody and Ryan 1985). But since the mid-1980s they increasingly acknowledged the role of science organizations in the public communication of science (e.g., Nelkin 1987). Universities and other research organizations were seen as original communicators, not mainly as mediators between scientists and journalists. Furthermore, the organizational culture of universities and other research organizations was recognized as a relevant social context for communicating scientists (Jung 2012; Marcinkowski et al. 2014)—besides the scientific community, whose norms are still considered important (Rödder 2012). Marcinkowski and Kohring (2014: 2) even go so far as to claim that “the push communication of academic institutions (usually executed by institutional press offices), has become the dominant form of public science communication and has tended to force other forms and functions of science communication into the background.”
An important question to ask from the perspective of STS studies is how research organizations mediate their relationship with the public and contribute to the public discourse about science. This question is part of the more general scholarly debate about the revision of the relationship (or “contract”) between science and society at large (Gibbons 1999). Classical public relations work of universities (as well as most public communication initiated by science in general in the past) often relied on one-way popularization of science through the mass media, assuming an uninformed public that had to be “educated” about science. This approach, often called the “deficit model” of science communication (see, e.g., Irwin 2014), has been criticized from STS points of view. For example, critics have pointed to a lack of a true dialogue, disregard of expertise and common sense held by nonscientists, undemocratic exclusion of public and civil society from participation in science and science governance, and the inefficiency of the popularization approach in responding to critical public attitudes and lack of trust in science (e.g., Wynne 1989; Nowotny 2003; Davies and Horst 2016).
The change of normative models, marked by the publication of the report Science and Society by the British House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology (2000), is often conceived as the move from a traditional public understanding of science (PUS) model to a public engagement with science (PES) model (see, e.g., Schäfer 2009). Miller (2001) highlights that the move toward PES does not only indicate a change of scholarly thinking about science communication but also a change in the programs of institutionalized science communication. That change is endorsed not only by the House of Lords Select Committee but also by many professional and political bodies worldwide—such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the European Commission, and the Japan Science and Technology Agency. Various forms of dialogue, emphasis on the social context of science, participation, and public engagement are the hallmarks of the new approach, which has led to a broad spectrum of approaches and initiatives to foster direct interaction between scientists and citizens through consensus conferences, citizen science, crowd funding of science, and event-based opportunities for citizens to encounter science and talk to scientists face-to-face (Holliman et al. 2009).
In many cases, the initiators and organizers of such communication are scholars from the STS or science communication field, individual scientific institutes, foundations, scientific associations, or professional science communication agencies. The question of interest to us is whether public relations departments of research organizations also include “engaging” forms of interaction with the public in their portfolio of measures and contribute to the “reframing” of science communication (Horst, Davies, and Irwin 2017). This question is relevant because research organizations control a large share of a country’s resources for public communication of science in terms of budget, organizational capacity, and number of scientists they can mobilize. The “public relations” of research organizations thus contributes significantly to the shaping of the relationship between science and the public in general.
While the role of organizations in science communication has received considerable interest internationally (e.g., Zerges and Becker 1992; Borchelt and Nielsen 2014; Fähnrich et al. 2019), few studies have dealt with public relations at Taiwanese universities (Yen 2003; Chang 2008; Cheng 2008). These studies show that PR efforts of universities generally aim to secure funding and confirm the strategic character of science PR in terms of organizational interest. As private universities depend more on tuition fees than public universities (Chou and Wang 2012; Chen and Chang 2010), Cheng (2008) found that PR departments were more important for private than for public universities. The private universities in her study tended to establish PR departments earlier than public universities did: 1990 versus 2006, respectively. Furthermore, private universities were found to provide better media services as well as produce press releases of higher quality than public universities (Wang 2005). The aforementioned studies focused on public communication in the context of universities as educational institutions (e.g., as a means to attract students) while the possible function of public communication in providing knowledge and bridging science and society received less attention.
Some studies pointed to cross-cultural differences in the public relations efforts of universities and other research organizations. For example, Peters (2012) presented data from surveys of scientists suggesting that the influence of PR departments of US and British universities on biomedical scientists’ media contacts is significantly stronger than that in Germany, France, or Japan. A survey of scientists in Taiwan, Germany, and the US by Lo (2016) showed that about 50 percent of Taiwanese scientists actually cooperated with their public relations departments in the twelve months before the survey, quite similar to the figures for German and US scientists. But the survey also revealed that Taiwanese scientists preferred to delegate the task of public communication to communication professionals while most US and German scientists wanted scientists to be responsible for communication with the public.
Cross-cultural differences in organizational science communication may derive from different communication environments such as the relatively short and weak tradition of independent quality journalism in Taiwan, the lack of strong science journalism (Huang and Jian 2006), and the ubiquitous use of social media by the population. Cross-cultural differences in science PR may also derive from different science traditions. East Asian science culture is characterized by strong nation-state steering and control (Marginson 2011), and scientific activities tend to be promoted as a means of modernization rather than because of the scientific values themselves (Bak 2018). Genuine scientific research interests, based on scientists’ expected respect for academic autonomy, are probably weaker in East Asian science than in Western science cultures. In effect, stronger political governance of science and lower demand for autonomy may reduce the legitimization deficit of science in East Asia while it is a major motivator to increase public visibility for scientists and science organizations in the West (Nelkin 1987; Weingart 2012). Strong governance and low autonomy may also affect how scientists perceive their role and decrease their feeling of personal responsibility for managing the relationship with the public.
Our study first tries to reconstruct public relations practices of science organizations in Taiwan. Second, we want to address the question of how this practice relates to the specific situation of Taiwan, in particular with respect to the Taiwan’s public communication system and science tradition. We aim to contribute to this research demand by a small-scale, exploratory survey of PR officers of universities and other research institutions with a particular focus on “science communication,” that is, on the communication of scientific knowledge, as part of the overall PR activities.
2 Exploratory Study
We conducted semistructured interviews with PR officers from different types of scientific organizations. The Indicators of Science and Technology, annually published by Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology, shows that about 66 percent of the total of forty thousand researchers with doctoral degrees work in the higher education sector, while 16 percent work in the government sector, and 17 percent in the business enterprise sector (Ministry of Science and Technology 2016: 104). Our small-scale, exploratory study focusses on what we consider as academic science: the higher education sector (private and public universities) and publicly funded non-university research institutions that we will refer to as “research centers” in the following. Our interviewees are from these types of scientific organizations.
The fourteen universities initially selected for our study were taken from a list of universities that had received grants from the Taiwan Ministry of Education’s Aim for the Top University Project and the Technological University Development Program, indicating a strong research record. Four large research centers were added to the list. The organizations in our small sample are thus not representative for Taiwanese academic institutions in general; they are typical examples of productive academic research organizations. However, they vary with respect to organization type and geographic location.
Anticipating that the PR professionals would only be available for a short interview, we designed our interview outline to plan for a maximum interview time of one hour and used a highly structured interview approach. The outline was divided into four sections: general overview of the PR department (including the professional background of the interviewee), exploration of the spectrum of communication activities, interaction with researchers within the university or research institute, and organizational context of the PR department and coordination with other departments or external bodies. Each section included one or more open questions with optional follow-up questions dependent on interviewees’ answers. The interview first focused on resources, structures, routines, and activities of the PR department (asking “what” questions), and then on the goals, constraints, and professionals’ beliefs guiding the work in the PR department (asking “why” questions).
Of the eighteen PR officers contacted, eleven accepted our interview invitation: five from a public university, four from a private university, and two from a research center. The interviews were conducted face-to-face at the interviewees’ offices or other places on the campus between November 2016 and January 2017. The average interview length was 59.5 minutes; the longest interview lasted 85 minutes. All interviews were audio-recorded and the crucial parts were transcribed. Quotes from the interviews included in this article were translated from Mandarin into English.
The analysis of our interview transcripts consisted of two phases: the reconstruction of the eleven individual cases and a comparison of these cases. The reconstruction of the individual cases started by identifying the responsibilities and resources of the PR department, and the professional background (e.g., science or journalism) of the PR officer. In the next steps, we explored professional routines and activities with respect to public communication, cooperation with the organizations’ researchers, university management, and other relevant internal and external units. We were particularly attentive to the rationales and explanations our interviewees offered (such as lack of science journalists or importance of particular audiences) because this reasoning often pointed to factors shaping the current science communication context in Taiwan. In the second phase, we compared the individual cases, finding many similarities but also some differences, which we related, for example, to different communication challenges of different types of research organizations.
Public communication departments of scientific institutions in Taiwan have different names such as public affairs, public relations, news center, or marketing communications. The scope of the responsibilities of PR officers differs; they may include, for example, managing the alumni network, donations, publications, and media contacts. In this article, we will use the term PR department for the respective organizational unit and call the staff working in PR departments PR officers.
Most private universities and the two research centers in our study have full-time PR officer positions, while these positions at public universities are mostly part-time. Organization type is also linked with the professional background of PR officers: most interviewed PR officers at research centers and private universities had a journalism or media background while those at public universities were mostly full-time professors taking responsibility for public relations in addition to their academic duties.
3.1 Journalistic Media Still Main Communication Channel for PR
Even in the social media era, all interviewed PR officers still considered dealing with journalists the most significant part of their routine work, and coverage in the journalistic media an important goal of PR work. Social media are rather seen as a supplementary tool. A PR officer at a private university, a former journalist, described his point of view stating that “the core of public relations is journalistic media. . . . Dealing well with news leads to good management of public relations.”
To ensure regular media visibility, several scientific organizations routinely hold press conferences, often delegating the task of preparing them to the institutes or departments. For example, a PR department may demand from each research unit to regularly hold a press conference, taking turns with other units. In this way, the workload of organizing press conferences is shared between the PR office and research departments. It is also a way to ensure that diverse research departments participate in the public communication of science. In other cases, research departments take the initiative and propose topics for press conferences or press releases to the PR department.
Compared with generating content for websites and social media themselves, many PR officers prefer journalistic media as the most efficient way to produce publicity for their organizations and to reach their key target groups: parents, stakeholders, and even managers of their own organization. A similar preference for journalistic media compared to websites and social media in terms of personal use and perceived impact was found for scientists (Allgaier et al. 2013). Several officers mentioned that visibility in newspapers serves as a success indicator for management, since newspapers continue to be a main information source for most managers. The following quote provides an example:
Journalistic media visibility represents a society’s endorsement. [Unlike advertising,] we do not pay for media visibility. . . . Our university board of directors uses media visibility as one of the evaluation criteria when assessing our efforts. (PR officer, private university)
As journalism is an essential target for public relations, PR officers have to anticipate the criteria of the media to optimize their press releases and to increase the chance of being covered in the press. One way to optimize stories for journalistic use is to include clear statements and omit technical details:
Our press releases are mostly short and straightforward, including who, what, when, where, how, and why. . . . We put more effort on the first paragraph to give readers a clear idea about our news. If the first paragraph is vague, readers will not read through the whole story. (PR officer, public university)
Several PR officers noted that it is one of their jobs to “serve journalists.” These PR officers make different offers to different types of journalists, such as printed information material, locations for photo and film shooting, and images. If TV journalists are invited, for example, PR officers prepare a filming location for the news scene in advance:
I feel that we try to provide the best service for journalists. If a journalist from a newspaper or TV station comes, we find a location for them in advance. If there is no suitable location, it is better that we merely provide a press release. (PR officer, private university)
An important service of the PR departments for journalists is improving the accessibility of information from the respective university or research center. For example, since most of the media industry is based in the capital Taipei, universities in other cities often hold a press conference in Taipei rather than on their own campus in order to increase the amount of media coverage. Not only does Taipei host the most journalists overall but it also hosts the most journalists specialized in education and science. Outside the capital, journalists are typically not specialized and have to cover a variety of issues:
For local journalists in this city [outside Taipei], university activities and events are more important news than research. Issues related with research are more likely to be covered by journalists in Taipei. (PR officer, private university)
Besides trying to attract media attention, PR officers also observe how journalistic media report about their organizations. Almost all interviewed PR officers said that they monitor the daily news for references to their organizations or stories about their scientists and students, and that they summarize the relevant news for their management.
3.2 Alternative Forms of Communication only Supplementary for PR
The rise of the internet and the popularity of social media enable PR officers to disseminate information about their organizations via direct online channels without journalistic mediation. That a research organization has a website is considered a necessity, and all organizations in this study actually have one. The interviewed PR officers generally agreed that a website is important to disseminate information and to represent their organizations in the public sphere. But most PR officers also conceded that they have no way to evaluate the effects of their university website:
We hardly assess the impact of media visibility or the impact of a university website. The website is like a facade, we just maintain the facade and do not know who will view it. (PR officer, public university)
Although every organization in this study has a website, not every one operates a social media account. Opinions about the utility of social media for PR vary among PR officers. Some officers were ambivalent about using social media for public communication because they were concerned about losing control of online discourses taking place at social media sites:
Why don’t we have an official Facebook account for our university? Because there will be a side effect, . . . which is, instead of exchanging information, the Facebook platform may become a platform for attack. (PR officer, private university)
Other PR officers endorse social media. They assume that social media supplement one-way communication channels such as websites and journalist-mediated media. They use social media to interact more informally with students and other audience groups, even with journalists:
While the tone of the website is official and serious, it is casual on Facebook and more relatable to our students. The Facebook platform is interactive. The more interactions, the more influence. The website is one-way and official. We usually release prompt information such as dates for speeches or events on Facebook. (PR officer, public university)
PR officers who use social media extensively confirmed that the feedback received via social media enables them to monitor public opinions of certain groups quite easily. For example, they get an idea of how students view their university and which topics interest them. This “listening function” of social networks is exemplified in the following quote:
As a public officer, I manage my own social networks [to receive the latest news] and understand opinions of different groups. (PR officer, private university)
Another goal of PR officers is to use the plurality of communicators in social media such as students to increase the visibility of the organization in diverse social contexts:
It is necessary to have multiple media channels. Students use social media a lot. Therefore, we tend to consider every student a potential journalist. They have the ability to release news at any time. . . . That is the reason why I care about social media. From the city’s virtual networks to the university’s alumni, the information disseminated on social networks is particularly important. (PR officer, public university)
Although many PR officers consider video communication important for public communication, only some of them use video communication in their PR work. Several officers said that they lack training and resources for video production. One PR officer mentioned that they outsource the production of films requiring resources that they do not have. However, the interviewees emphasized that they nevertheless write all scripts themselves.
Besides traditional or new media channels, face-to-face activities such as hosting a science café or organizing an open day enable scientists to connect with the public. Only a few PR officers mentioned their involvement with such activities. Some reported that other departments organized such events. One PR officer commented critically about face-to-face activities such as open days:
Open days, I know open days from other institutions. To be honest, the marketing does result in some effect. But open day is just one day. (PR officer, research center)
The diversity of communication channels enables PR officers to implement more intricate PR strategies, using journalistic media as well as social media. In particular with regard to social impact, visibility in the journalistic media continues to be important for the public communication of scientific organizations. However, the new media allow PR officers to address messages more precisely to target audiences, and to target audiences that hardly use traditional media.
3.3 Science Communication Is Only Peripheral for University PR
Most of the interviewed university PR officers considered science communication—that is, the communication of scientific research, findings, and expertise—challenging because of lack of time and resources to present scientific issues properly. Releasing news about science is perceived to be a laborious and inefficient way to gain public visibility for a university. Several university PR officers said that preparing news about science takes more time than preparing news about university events and issues. When they communicate science, it takes a lot of time to prepare settings that are attractive to media. Furthermore, they have to double-check content with the respective scientists prior to releasing the news. Most PR officers at public universities spend only part of their time on PR and have other duties such as teaching and research; focusing on science communication in their PR work is therefore especially demanding for them.
Besides lacking resources, the question of whether or not their target audience is interested in science bothers PR officers at universities. Since PR officers can see how often a story was read or shared from the website or new media site of their organization, they get feedback about the audience’s interest in different topics, and PR officers at universities see only limited effects of their online science stories:
Some of the news is not important, but it reaches a lot of readers. . . . The number of readers reached by news about research and science is usually small. Many people may think the news is irrelevant to them, but in reality the news is quite significant. (PR officer, public university)
If communicating science, more or less all interviewed PR officers emphasized the relevance of showing the implications of a scientific finding for everyday life or the benefits of its application in the future, as exemplified in the following quote:
Very basic research can hardly attract media attention. But if a topic is related to the public, or our future, such as a press conference about brain research, even though the topic is complicated and has been covered several times, the media will still cover it. The presentation of scientific issues should orient toward public interest. (PR officer, private university)
As mentioned already, journalists are a key target group of PR. Services for journalists such as providing information or finding filming locations are an important part of the work. University PR officers consider the lack of science journalists in Taiwan an obstacle to the public dissemination of information about science and technology. As a consequence, university PR officers avoid elaborating scientific knowledge and rather emphasize applications based on that knowledge:
The knowledge behind scientific studies has rarely been covered. I think it is because journalists cannot understand the knowledge. In past years, we held several press conferences on innovative designs. If the designs related to electronic theory, most journalists had no idea about it. However, if the designs were unique, involving everyday life, these would have the best chance of being covered. We tend not to mention really scholarly topics. (PR officer, public university)
However, universities are not dependent on a public profile in research because they can emphasize their role in higher education. And the university PR officers assume that the educational role finds a lot of media interest.
With respect to the genuine PR agenda of improving its public visibility and image of the university, some university PR officers thought that efforts for science communication do not pay off. One PR officer specifically stated that news about science is merely part of their strategy to increase their organization’s visibility.
For our PR work, the university is the most important, but not professors. To help our scientists communicate with the public, they must have something related to our everyday life. From journalistic points of view, some scientific research and innovations are worthy to be studied, but do not have news value. Our idea is to market our university. (PR officer, private university)
The quote shows a remarkable differentiation between the assumed genuine PR task of marketing the university, and the interest of “professors” to communicate their research. Obviously, the latter is seen as the business of researchers with only auxiliary involvement of the PR unit (“to help”), but not as a core task of the PR unit because the contribution of science communication to the overall marketing goal is perceived as marginal.
A PR officers approach toward public communication of science will reflect the types of organizations in which they work. Although basically agreeing that science communication is important, PR officers at universities emphasized obstacles such as a lack of resources, perceived lack of journalistic interest, and limited relevance for their core mission of marketing the university. In contrast, the interviews with two PR officers at research centers suggest that science communication is quite central for them.
Unlike universities, research centers do not profit from media interest in education. Both interviewed PR officers at research centers therefore emphasized the need to communicate science. They also assumed that the public is interested in science, whereas—as mentioned above—university PR officers tended to be skeptical regarding the public’s interest in science. Both PR officers at research centers emphasized their responsibility of sharing scientific knowledge with the public, referring to the public funding of their research. They also stated the importance of public communication for industry collaborations and innovation. Furthermore, they expected benefits of public communication of science for the interdisciplinary exchange among researchers:
As far as I remember, since the time that our institution was established, we set a goal that in addition to scientific research we must also communicate with the public. A great part of our funding is from taxpayers. Our research aims to collaborate with industries. How do you inform industries? Of particular note, since it is now a cross-disciplinary era, scientists involved with biomedicines may also be interested in results from photoelectricity research. Only if we practice public communication will others learn of our latest research results. (PR officer, research center)
3.4 Diverse Forms of Collaboration between Scientists and PR officers
Most interviewed PR officers reported positive interactions with scientists who provide material for public communication. Some of the scientists have to be pushed to cooperate with the PR department, though, as one of the interviewed PR officers reported:
Regarding talking to journalists, scientists’ attitudes are mixed. Some professors at this university are conservative; some are against media contacts or are ignorant about the benefits. . . The challenge for us is that we have to stay humble while at the same time we are required to get results. We help professors perceive the advantages of being covered by the media so that they will share information about their research with us next time. (PR officer, private university)
There are two typical ways that PR officers and scientists collaborate. PR officers with a media background often initiate contacts with scientists themselves. These media-experienced PR officers—mostly in private universities or research centers—work similar to “journalists” when preparing press releases. They actively search for potential topics, contact scientists, and draft news releases themselves.
PR officers who work that way sometimes have to struggle with scientists for getting their final approval. To deal with these difficulties, PR officers use different strategies. Some said that they always send their draft of a news release to scientists for a last check to ensure that the information is correct. Others said that they let scientists check only those parts of the text related to technical details or parts they feel uncertain about:
Not every scientist agrees when we try to present their professional work in our media language. Some scientists will ask to read a draft of the news release. Besides some technical terms, we usually do not show them drafts. We tend to emphasize applications more than technology. We basically respect their research; however, if a scientist is unwilling to compromise with our PR style, neither will we [and the article does not get published]. (PR officer, private university)
The second ways of collaboration is more often based on the initiative of a scientist who writes a draft of a press release. In this way of collaboration—more common at public universities—PR officers mostly serve as editors and proofreaders:
There are many occasions that call for a press release, such as major activities or if research departments have a new development. They will draft a press release and send it to us. Our role is to proofread the press release. Sometimes we will modify the wording. (PR officer, public university)
PR officers at universities with departments of media studies or journalism sometimes even ask professors at those departments for a final check. Irrespective of whether PR officers assume a journalist or proofreader role, they see their task in the process of producing a press release or presentation for a press conference in making science comprehensible for the public:
If the press release was drafted by a research department, most of it could not be understood by a layperson. . . . Our role is to translate the science jargon into everyday language. We signify possible applications of the research and inform journalists why this research is important. (PR officer, research center)
The amount of organizational influence on scientists’ contact with the public, in particular on their interactions with journalists, seems to vary among private universities, public universities, and research centers.
Scientists’ public communication is rather strictly regulated in research centers. One of the PR officers at a research center defined their role as that of a “supervisor” of external communication as follows:
Scientific journal articles are peer-reviewed prior to publication. The peer-review mechanism indicates the professionalism involved with science. Because our profession is public relations [and our institute’s image is our responsibility], the public communication [of our scientists] should be supervised. Exaggeration and flashiness are not the image that we would like to project. (PR officer, research center)
Although the private universities included in our study do not currently have explicit regulations dealing with public communication activities of scientists, some PR officers thought that such regulations and guidelines were needed. Private universities are sensitive to media relations because their public image is directly linked to their financial situation as it affects fundraising and tuition fees. Thus, they take media interactions of their researchers seriously. Another PR officer of a private university said that the PR department would not become involved with media contacts of scientists as long as the contacts focused on the scientists’ research and scientific expertise, but that the university had specific regulations for public communication activities of scientists with a management role. According to the interviewee, this distinction was made because statements from scientists in a management role are likely to be perceived as official communication of the university and thus are particularly sensitive, potentially hurting the organization’s interests.
PR officers of public universities tended to interpret participation of their scientists in public activities as private issues or as being in the domain of academic autonomy. Therefore, they hardly become involved with scientists’ public communication or provide advice to them. The public universities covered in our sample do not have regulations or guidelines for individual scientists’ public communication. Asked about consequences of individual scientists’ communication activities, most PR officers of public universities did not see a significant influence, at least not on student enrollment. This assessment reflects the perceived low relevance of public communication for their university in general. Several of them said that the public image of their university was based on its long-term performance. They thought that even scandals or negative media stories about their university resulting from inapt scientists’ public communication would only have a short-term influence, but that, overall, media visibility would hardly affect their public image.
3.5 PR Approaches Differ among Organization Types
Summarizing the (limited) evidence from the eleven interviews, we find that the two research centers and the private universities in our sample emphasize the importance of public relations more than public universities do. The stronger emphasis on PR of private universities compared to public universities is reflected in the organization charts: PR units at public universities are usually at the second level of the organizational hierarchy, while those of private universities are more likely at the first level (Cheng 2008). A PR officer of a public university said that media coverage or press releases were just “icing on the cake” without significant impact on the university’s success. However, even interviewees from public universities were aware that the political influence of their universities could be intensified by mass media. They thought that the media might amplify their university president’s voice on political issues.
The degree of professionalism of PR, indicated by the professional background of PR officers, corresponds to the respective importance of public relations. Most interviewed PR officers at research centers and private universities had some type of communication training or hold a degree in journalism, whereas most PR officers at public universities do not have a communication background but were recruited from the academic staff of the university.
The priority of science communication within the organization’s overall public relations activities also differs: It is higher in research centers than in universities because the latter can base their public relations on the educational function rather than on research performance, and—as mentioned before—they find this preferable for a number of reasons.
Why do organizations differ in their public relations approaches? In the first place, the different emphasis reflects the organizations’ interests in cultivating their public image which affects the success of the organizations differently. Private universities struggle more than public universities to attract new students and depend more on their tuitions (Chen and Chang 2010). The public image is thus more relevant for private than for public universities that are largely funded by the government.
Although research centers are also funded by the government, their legitimacy as explicit research institutions is less self-evident than that of public universities, which can always point to their obvious relevance as educational institutions. To gain public support, research centers are required to demonstrate scientific excellence and social relevance of their research through public communication, which explains their particular focus on science communication.
Due to the low number of interviews, we cannot claim a comprehensive analysis of science PR in Taiwan; we clearly acknowledge the exploratory character of our study and the preliminary character of our claims. However, the consistency of our interviewees’ answers in many aspects and the fact that we are able to link differences in PR practices meaningfully with different organizational contexts and challenges assures us that we have gained some relevant insights that may guide more comprehensive follow-up studies.
A significant conclusion from our study is the low emphasis of Taiwanese science organization on public relations in general, and on science communication in particular. Interviewees frequently complained about lack of resources for more and more ambitious PR activities. Universities focus on public relations related to their educational role. While this may serve the marketing goals of universities, it does not fulfill society’s need of information about research and of scientific knowledge relevant to policy making on issues of public health, environment, and technical innovation, for example. Political legitimization as a goal of science PR, and public visibility of science as a means of contributing to that goal, seem to be of lower relevance in Taiwan than in Western countries.
In universities, particularly in public universities, science communication tends to be seen as business of individual researchers in the first place, not as responsibility of the organization. Putting science communication in the responsibility of scientists has a good side, as scientists seem to enjoy a lot of freedom in public communication; it also has a problematic side, in that universities provide little resources and low amounts of encouragement. Ironically, PR officers at research centers and private universities with a communication or media background seem to consider the communication of science more beneficial for their organization than PR officers at public universities recruited from their academic staff. Stronger professionalism of PR at private universities and research centers is related to more intervention of PR departments in individual scientists’ communication activities.
Despite the spread of online communication and social media in Taiwan, traditional journalistic media remain in the focus of science PR while social media are mainly used as supplementary channels. One of the reasons for the centrality of traditional media is that PR officers believe that the most important target groups of organizational PR—parents of prospective students, decision makers in government and industry—can most effectively be reached by journalistic media. Social media are used to reach audiences (such as prospective students) that do not consume traditional media.
PR officers also seem to fear, rather than embrace, the dialogic character of social media that may give rise to “shit storms” attacking their organization. If social media are used, they are not used to create open discourses about science but as up-to-date dissemination channels, and—at most—as monitoring tools. The difficulty to control discourses in the social media, a feature that communication researchers relate to the democratic potential of these media, is seen as a risk. Therefore, such topics tend to be communicated in the social media that minimize this risk. Event-based communication activities with the aim to provide opportunities for face-to-face encounters with science and scientists are not in the repertoire of the PR offices. There was no mentioning of participation, dialogue, or public engagement efforts in the interviews.
The discussion regarding the transition from the traditional PUS model to the PES model, mentioned in the introduction, seems to be missing the point with respect to science PR. Neither are PR departments of universities and research centers genuinely interested in educating the public, as they would be if they followed the PUS model, nor do they want to create a new kind of interface between science and the public by inviting participatory public engagement or organizing dialogues about issues of significance for the organization, as the PES model would suggest. Their strategies are, rather, oriented to an old-fashioned, conservative, self-interest type of PR approach of promoting the organizations’ self-defined goals and shielding the organization against public interference challenging these goals.
In their collaboration with scientists, PR officers try to improve the quality of public science communication from the public’s point of view, securing comprehensibility and even preventing overhyping of research by researchers, for example. They also mentioned that they try to communicate research and research findings in a social context, sometimes having to argue against naive “popularization” views of scientists. At least this influence can be seen as a modest contribution to public engagement with science.
Weingart (2012) points to a democratic deficit of science, having mainly Western countries in mind. Because of heavier government control of research and lower academic autonomy in Taiwan, as in East Asian countries in general (Marginson 2011), the democratic legitimacy deficit of science seems to be less of a problem in these countries. The acceptance of heavy government control by science reduces potential tensions between scientific and policy goals as the research agenda largely reflects policy priorities. The need of mobilizing support for the goals of science through public visibility is therefore low.
Furthermore, science is not an important topic of Taiwanese media. It means that even if the media are similarly important in Taiwan as in Western democracies for politics in general, we may assume that because of the media’s low attention for Taiwanese science this is still less the case for policy making in the field of science than for other policy fields. Both factors, lower demand for academic autonomy and lower medialization of science governance, reduce the media orientation of Taiwanese scientists and management of universities and research centers, and may help to explain the relatively restricted resources allocated for science PR at Taiwanese universities and science centers compared to Western countries.
What are the consequences of these findings for public communication of science in Taiwan? What role could universities and research centers play in science communication? Compared with Western countries such as Germany, the UK, and the US, Taiwan is characterized by a weak tradition and infrastructure for science communication, in particular by lack of quality science journalism. Journalists often report about applications and technologies, avoiding explaining the science behind them (Huang and Jian 2006). Even if there is growing interest in the promotion of public communication of science in Taiwan, exemplified by the foundation of a science media center, there seems to be a lack of institutional support for science communication.
While in some countries the dominance of science PR and marketing goals in public communication has raised concerns, in Taiwan the public would profit from a more active role of universities and other academic organizations in public communication because of the scarcity of other competent science communicators, in particular of science journalists. However, to fit in, science organizations must extend their perspective on science PR as a means of marketing and securing public support. They should include outreach, that is, the provision of relevant scientific knowledge to different publics, as a genuine goal of their PR. This would not be an alternative to the promotion of quality science journalism through the science media center initiative, for example, but a complementing approach.
We thank all anonymous reviewers for their insightful suggestions on earlier versions of this article. We also thank the PR officers who provided their experience and views on public relations of their organizations for agreeing to our interview requests and for offering their time to participate in this study.