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AusSMC to build redundant bridges?

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A few months ago I received an interesting poster from CSIRO ICT. No not one declaring the scientific brilliance of a particular field of research, but from way over in left field – a marketing poster.

Much to my pleasant surprise, CSIRO’s year-old (but newly proclaimed) ICT centre kicked off its media relations strategy by sending journalists a poster titled “ICT Centre Media Spokespeople”. This A3-sized poster concisely outlined a dozen or so of CSIRO’s leading ICT researchers together with their titles, area of expertise, mug shot, and a brief bio. The poster then concluded with the names and contact details of two communications consultants and and CSIRO in general.

The most interesting thing about this poster – in addition to the familiar names – is the introductory statement:

“Senior researchers at the CSIRO ICT Centre have and in-depth understanding of a full range of ICT issues. They are available for expert, independent analysis and comment.”

What’s the operative word here? Independent. Of course, every vendorland spokesperson is an “expert” but they sure as hell ain’t independent. Excellent CSIRO PR people – you’re inside the journalist’s mind.

This told me that CSIRO, with its desire to not only showcase its research activities but to lure more interest from the enterprise, was definitely off on the right foot with its investment in marketing through the media. CSIRO ICT definitely now has its own PR budget and agenda – a vast improvement from the days of yesteryear.

So this month, with an almost ironic lack of fanfare, South Australian Premier Mike Rann announced the launch of Australia’s Science Media Centre, or AusSMC, aimed at increasing the amount of media coverage for Australian science.

I say ironic because for an organisation dedicating itself to generating more press coverage for this country’s scientific efforts the best it did was a brief in the Adelaide Advertiser. Hopefully this will improve when the centre opens in September.

The media release can be found here.

Before I go on, anything to help generate more publicity for Australian science is a GOOD thing. There’s only so much science journalists can cover on their regular gigs and I hate to think of all the hidden treasures that remain exactly that – hidden.

Having interviewed scientists for years now, I can safely say they are always a pleasure to deal with. Sure you might need to get through the usual ‘can’t be quoted’ phobia, but they are generally a lot more forthcoming than your average corporate IT person that’s for sure (blame everything from competition to share prices for that).

Perhaps one of the reasons why scientists tend to be quite approachable is that they haven’t been flustered by the politics of corporate PR departments. The silly phrase “nobody speaks to the media except…” being alien to them.

But with the advent of increased commercial interests among the nation’s research and education institutions things have become more interesting with regard to media relations efforts all around. In recent years such organisations have spearheaded individual communications strategies. CSIRO (an AusSMC partner), NICTA, ANSTO, CRCs, universities, etc, are all now pouring money into professional PR. AARNet, yes AARNet, recently appointed a PR agency to help it generate more publicity in line with its rising commercial aspirations.

My hope for AusSMC, and the amount of media coverage for our scientific activities going forward, is that it will work well with the PR efforts of the individual entities to uncover secrets so interesting to us all – at a reasonable price. The burning question is whether throwing more money at PR strategies via a national media centre will end up being extraneous in today’s increasingly media-savvy scientific community.

Resolving that clash may not be easy, but come to think of it, they’re all communicators.

Rodney

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