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Headlines Published on 13 July 2004

Title From lecture halls to television studios, a professor’s life

Meek and mild professors are being foisted by their bosses on expert-hungry media to help raise the profiles of their institutions, a US report reveals. What are the pros and cons of this aggressive PR approach and would it work in Europe?

A closer look at the USA: will Europe take to the aggressive self-promotion of its professorial staff? © Image: PhotoDisc
A closer look at the USA: will Europe take to the aggressive self-promotion of its professorial staff?
© Image: PhotoDisc
Universities are no longer a place for scholars to muse quietly over the world’s problems. In the United States and some other countries with fee-paying tertiary education systems, learning has become a competitive business. This battle to win students and raise faculty profiles has trickled down from boardrooms to staff rooms, according to a recent report by the Christian Science Monitor (CSM), a respected American news service.

Universities in the States are prepared to pay heavy fees to be listed on specialised databases, such as ProfNet, which help journalists find experts on any given subject. Some institutions go one step further, the report adds, paying PR firms thousands of euros a year to get their professors – and their research – into the media spotlight.

John Allen Williams, a military expert at the Loyola University of Chicago, says he receives a steady flow of queries and calls from journalists after a quick quote. “It lends a certain creditability when [people] see you on television,” he told CSM. Professors like Williams also recognise that this extra exposure can also help their own careers. “It may boost student enrolment in my courses,” he said.        

Keeping within the lines
Not everyone favours this media-seeking approach for academics. Questions have been raised by trustees as to whether the extra promotional efforts bring in sufficient new enrolments, and whether national television coverage of one of their faculty members is any better than effective regional or local advertising. But advocates of the PR approach to marketing counter this argument with evidence that paid-up ad placements are less effective than they used to be in a saturated media-advertising world.

Other critics want to see professors balance their workloads, fearing the opportunity costs of spending days courting the press might take them away from their traditional duties, such as teaching classes and carrying out research. This need to be telegenic, or media-friendly, arguably does not come naturally to many professors, placing undue stress on them. Often, they are also under pressure to increase their publication rate (see Headlines, 6 July 2004). What’s more, those commenting on controversial topics must be careful not to contradict the institutions’ policies. Many instruct their staff to stick closely to their field of expertise. With this minefield of concerns, is it any wonder many academics – in Europe as well – tread very carefully around the media?

So, will the PR approach in academia catch on in Europe as well? Nobel laureate Martin Veldman told delegates, earlier this year – at an EU-hosted event examining what must be done to boost researcher numbers – that European universities lack the entrepreneurial spirit driving ‘excellence’ in the USA. His candid review of the difference between the USA and Europe, in light of the Union’s Lisbon ambitions, raised more than eyebrows at the gathering. It also raised an important question: what can Europe do to promote research when its main competitor seems to have the competitive edge?

The Commission recognises the important role that the media plays in communicating scientific activities to the public. Through its research programmes, such as the Science and Society initiatives, as well as the projects it funds, the EU encourages researchers to communicate their findings to as wide an audience as possible. And yet, despite the clear benefits and EU efforts, many scientists still shun media attention and criticise the ‘popularisation’ of their serious work. To help overcome this, the Commission set up this year a new scientific communication prize as part of its Descartes Prize for collaborative scientific excellence. On-line services such as AlphaGalileo, which posts the latest news and findings in a media-friendly format, also helps Europe deliver on its research potential.

Source:  EU and press sources

Research Contacts page

More information:

  • Colleges push professors into media spotlight (Christian Science Monitor, 25 June 2004)
  • New EU study probes the scientific publishing world (Headlines, 6 July 2004)
  • Science and Society programme
  • Communicating science
  • Increasing human resources for science and technology in Europe (2 April 2004)
  • AlphaGalileo

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