PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


The hidden persuaders
Institutional spokespersons and the image of science

James Cornell   Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

For more than half-century in the United States, and more recently in Europe and elsewhere, science information specialists, the “official spokespersons” for research organizations, government laboratories, and academic institutions have played significant roles in determining the flow of news and information to the general public. Translating and interpreting research results from institutional laboratories and then transmitting “official” messages to the media, these people often serve as the first “gatekeepers” in a complex communications network. Despite their critical contribution to public understanding of science and technology, information specialists have been generally ignored by communications scholars. In part, this is because both scientists and journalists tend to minimize their importance. Reporters often accuse them of blatant propagandizing—or of blocking access to primary sources. Many scientists, in turn, dismiss them as unimaginative functionaries, fit only to fulfill necessary public relations requirements or to serve as shields against an inquisitive press. This paper will attempt to assess the real influence wielded by information officers and to examine the supportive services they provide both researchers as many major European research institutions, such as ESA and CSIC, develop proactive programs of public information based on the American model.

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