PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT – PUBLIC RELATIONS
David M. Berube
When writing Nano-Hype, I crafted the following sentences in the second to the last chapter.
SEIN (the study of the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology) may simply be perception management by legislators, regulators, and civil servants to distance themselves from culpability should anything disastrous ensue. This cynical, even skeptical view, in our minds (researchers) is a healthy one. What reservations we express along the way might release critics from apologizing later. The distance between advocacy and critical studies is not sufficiently great to preclude co-option. The scenario of government using experts to serve as public relations spokespersons is not that unlikely.
This concern is beginning to come to light. While my colleagues and I were apprehensive about being spokespersons for government initiatives which we found problematic on many levels, we did not anticipate recent announcements claiming to increase public understanding of nanotechnology through commercial marketing ventures.
For me, it started with a flyer about a 12 page piece entitled NANOTECHNOLOGY: A BRAVE NEW WORLD. It was scheduled to appear in the October 1st issue of the New York Times. Initially, I contacted journalists there to determine what role they would play in the project. Rereading the flyer and contacts in the business world informed me the “report” had advertising rates associated with it. Next there was another flyer but this time it referred to a similar supplement (14 pages) was going to appear in The Times on June 28. MediaPlanet had a similar supplement on July 5, 2006 (http://www.nano.org.uk/newsletter/times/Nano2.htm).
The Times supplement comes from Media Planet (http://www.mediaplanet.fi/) and its collaborators are MANCEF (Micro and nanotechnology Commercialization Education Foundation, http://www.mancef.org/about.htm), the Institute of Nanotechnology (a Scottish group, http://www.nano.org.uk/), and the NIA (Nanotechnology Industries Association, http://www.nanotechia.co.uk/). MediaPlanet offers advertisement and advertorial rates.
The New York Times supplement comes from PurpleGold Media (http://www.purplegoldmedia.com/) in collaboration with MANCEF, the Institute of Nanotechnology, The Nanotech Company (http://www.nanotechnology.com/) [I guess you wondered who got that domain!], the Nano Science and Technology Institute (http://www.nsti.org/), and NanoBioNexus (http://www.nanobionexus.org/).
MANCEF, the Institute of Nanotechnology (I spoke at one of their meetings), and the Nano Science and Technology Institute have been the subject of a study I have been working on and it is tentatively entitled “The Business of Nano” and described the incredibly expensive national and international trade fairs, some with perfunctory presentations that are marketing programs. While there have been some worthwhile information exchanges taking place, more and more of these fairs are marketing ventures. And that’s OK unless they purport to be something else altogether.
What sent me over the top was a May 15, 2007, press release from NanoBioNexus (http://www.nanotechwire.com/news.asp?nid=4673). The title of the press release is “NanoBioNexus Collaborate with Purplegold Media to Increase Public’s Understanding of Nanotechnology.” NBN claims it is devoted to “reliably communicate the potential benefits of this technology to the wider world” and further adds Purplegold “shares a comparable mission.”STOP THE PRESSES.
Here’s some information to consider. There is little evidence the public can discern promotional materials from objectively researched materials. Indeed, advertisers and marketers generally use this reservation to their advantage as they depict fictional messages as realistic in print and in other media.
We also know that framing is important in unbundling media messages of all sorts and when nanotechnology is framed against “potential benefits” and not risks or other social concerns we may be hyping the technology rather than increasing understanding. In addition, if the public is fed positive messages about nanotechnology without a working frame to decode contrary messages, such as toxicological information, you will increase dissonance and can provoke a backlash that is both counterproductive and contrary to your alleged goals.
Media functions off advertising revenue and that is not being debated here. Rather we need to consider whether it serves the community or the public to allow the marketing firms of the world to hijack the public engagement agenda. While the fault lies with ourselves for not being sufficiently aggressive, let’s hope we can move ahead and quickly. Products are on the market and marketing associations are pushing these wares into the public sphere.
HEADS UP! We cannot leave the mission of increasing the public understanding of nanotechnology to marketing firms and trade associations.
I hope to have a draft of “The Business of Nano” completed soon.