The value of PR stunts?

I’ve been a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) for many years now; I think I’m coming up on my 15th year. The RSC does a lot of good things — and I know many people who work there and enjoy catching up with them at conferences. But there is one thing in particular that the RSC does that makes me roll my eyes (and many of the chemists I know have a similar reaction). Occasionally the RSC puts out a light-hearted press release that has only a very tenuous link to chemistry, or no discernible link to chemistry whatsoever.

Yesterday’s effort (which foreshadowed an event today) was titled: Mrs Beeton’s all-bread sandwich recreated for tough-times Britain. The release tells us that, “The RSC decided to promote Mrs Beeton’s toast sandwich because it might just be what we need to get us through the harsh economic times that are forecast.” Well isn’t that nice of them? Nothing much to do with chemistry though.

As noted in an article in 2010 by Brian Emsley on the Association of British Science Writers website, “The generating of historically-based or eccentric stunts has been part of the RSC mainstream PR now for eight years and each year we think that we have exhausted the seam but then another concept springs up happily.” The basic idea seems to be that if you can generate media interest through these stunts and raise the profile of the RSC, then when important issues in chemical policy, research or education crop up, the press are more likely to remember the RSC and go to them for comment. And through a fairly extensive exchange I had on Twitter today, it seems that once the RSC has got their foot in the door with the national media with one of these stunts, they can use the opportunity to raise other chemistry-related issues.

But does it work? I’m not convinced. Of course, I could be wrong. But I can’t help but imagine that the vast majority of people reading the stories or listening to the interviews go away and remember the gimmick, but not much more. Maybe I wouldn’t object so much if there was some fundamental chemistry underpinning these stunts that was more of an integral part of the press release — and that people went away with just a tiny bit more understanding about science or chemistry. But then again, I guess the stories might not be picked up so much if that was the case. Trying to increase the engagement of chemists and chemistry with the public is something I think is very important, I’m just not sure this is the right way to go about it.

There has also been some criticism on Twitter that there are more important things going on in chemistry that should be more of a priority for the RSC — most notably the current funding policies of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (this blog will give you one side of the story). I also think there are other great ‘public interest’ stories that powerfully demonstrate the importance of chemistry — one that caught the eye today is Dave Smith’s very personal story about the chemistry that makes organ transplantation possible. Find 15 minutes and go and watch it.

I think my comments on the latest RSC PR stunt touched a few nerves, with @RSC_Comms branding me a ‘hypocrite’ for daring to criticize the toast-sandwich offensive after I have previously written about the chemistry of cookies here on this blog. As I pointed out, I’m not a professional society that charges members dues to fund my activities. My blog is a personal one with a chemistry slant that I post to in my spare time. There’s a difference!

Anyway, I’m probably being somewhat precious about this, but what do you think? Are the RSC PR stunts helping raise the profile of chemistry in the UK? Lemme know!

*My lovely — and sensible — wife made me change the title of this post from what I originally planned. One day I’ll let you all know what it was.

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13 Responses to The value of PR stunts?

  1. Ah, it all becomes clear. I only saw one or two tweets earlier, and I was surprised by the bluntness (or rudeness) of the RSC account considering it’s an official one. I actually heard about the toast thing on radio 2 this morning, but I had no idea the RSC was involved, which rather proves your point. When I discovered they were behind it, I was baffled. The only science involved seems to be the number of calories, which is rather meaningless to people who know anything about nutrition…

  2. Tom Philips says:

    Completely agree with you, Stuart.

    I was puzzled to hear a RSC representative on Radio 4 say something along the lines of “it’s food chemistry.” Hmm, ok, maybe. I expected something like “when you toast the bread, you get this reaction… hence it tastes good” but nope, nothing… no chemistry.

    Cheap PR stunts like this make chemistry look irrelevant, when really it’s the total opposite.

  3. Peter Scott says:

    Rsc comms apparently bizarre obsession with gravy, toast and other embarrassing non-chemistry stories makes sense if you have ever eaten lunch at Burlington house. Otherwise, I’d rather they spent my subs on promoting chemistry to kids.

  4. McDave says:

    Was the word “cunning” in the original post title per chance? hee hee

  5. DocChemist says:

    Stuart – have you even listened to the BBC reports on this? It doesn’t sound like you have.

    And yes, you are being precious. To the point where at the drop of being called a hypocrite you rush out a 700 word blog in an attempt to back up your point of view.

    Journalists: can give it, can’t take it.

    • stu says:

      Hi DocChemist

      No, I didn’t listen to the BBC reports, but I don’t think that necessarily undermines the questions I raise. I did read the press release and have read some of the previous stunt-related PRs.

      OK, you think I am being precious. That’s fine. Others will too, and I did pose it as a question. I don’t mind being called a hypocrite, I’ve been called far worse. Trust me, I can take it. I was a little surprised that an official Twitter feed of an organization of which I am a member decided to use such language, but if the RSC is happy to engage with its members using such a tone, then so be it.

      Dare I say, what I do find somewhat hypocritical are that comments such as ‘Journalists: can give it, can’t take it’ (and also the implication that I rushed out a blog post because of being called a hypocrite) are made by someone who has posted a comment using a pseudonym. Why not have the courage to put your name to such criticisms? My comments on the RSC press stunts are right there with my name associated with them.

      And although I could have guessed where you work before I even saw the IP address associated with your comment, it leaves no doubt. Perhaps you should have declared that when making these comments. Is this an official response from your organization?

      I’d love to know.

      Cheers

      Stuart

  6. mattoddchem says:

    Agreed. Silly. Trivialising science rather than popularising it.

  7. DocChemist says:

    Mattoddchem – have you heard the BBC reports?

  8. Paul Clarke says:

    I agree with the points you raise. In times when chemistry and chemicals come under attack by media, government and the research councils the RSC should be using its profile to defend and raise awareness of serious chemistry issue rather than trivialising issues with a gimmick. I have challenged the RSC to provide evidence for where one if these gimmick stories had lead to wider press coverage of chemistry or important chemical issues and of course none have been forthcoming.

  9. DocChemist says:

    Hi Stu

    Amazing – you write a blog post questioning the value of PR stunts without even listening to the coverage it generated. Of course this undermines your case!

    You remind me of the MPs the Daily Mail called up after the Chris Morris Brass Eye special informing them of its content then asking them if they were outraged at the show, eliciting the desired response for their story. Only after Private Eye called the same MPs did they admit they had not even seen it.

    Mind you, you are certainly not the only journalist in the country to look at a press release and fail to pick up the phone and ask any questions at all about its content.

    What a snide comment about my IP address – is it not ok to support your colleagues in the work they are doing? If you want rather more independent comments on the stunt perhaps you should spend some time reading through the twitter responses – both pro and anti – from scientists and non-scientists alike.

    I believe you have already had an official response to your comments on the toast sandwich – if you are going to use a public forum to criticise the RSC for working on an “imbecilic stunt”, is that same organisation not allowed to defend itself publicly?

    To give just one example of the benefits of PR stunts, and in response to Paul Clarke above, the stunt enabled the RSC to get onto the Today programme to promote the upcoming public lecture to be given by the government chemist Dr Derek Craston. If the stunt was not used as a hook to do this, the Today programme would not have given a press release solely promoting the lecture a second thought. So here’s your evidence Paul:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9640000/9640773.stm

    For fear of being dragged into a lengthy tit-for-tat exchange, I’ll end by saying of course things like this are not to everyone’s taste but before you pronounce your verdict, at least try and actually get the full picture first.

    It’s what both scientists and journalists really should do.

    Thanks.

    • stu says:

      Hey DocChemist

      Of course I am not surprised that you support your colleagues in what they are doing. I think it’s very admirable that you do. For the sake of transparency, however, I think it would have been better to declare your affiliation. And use your real name. Why don’t you, I wonder?

      And yes, I used a public forum to criticize the RSC. So of course I expect the RSC to defend themselves in the same forums, in this case on Twitter and here on this blog (where I also said nice things too!). Sure, I called the toast stunt ‘imbecilic’, because I think it was. But I’m not calling anyone who works at the RSC by any names — I’m just questioning one particular activity of a professional society of which I am a member. And it appears to me that the RSC is, in part, defending their PR-stunt strategy by criticizing me personally (through an official RSC Twitter account and through you here on this blog) by calling me a hypocrite and suggesting that while I can dish out criticism, I can’t take it.

      I would have thought a better way to respond would be to focus on what you believe the value of these stunts to be and why they do work — and refrain from the personal comments. But as I said before, if this is how the RSC wishes to engage with its fee-paying membership, then you go for it.

      Stu

  10. David Smith says:

    I did listen to the media coverage, at least on the Today programme. There was quite a lot of discussion of the merits (or lack of them) of eating a toast sandwich, and the historical Mrs Beeton context. There was a brief mention of the fact that bread is ‘very healthy’ because of the chemistry in it (added vitamins) and a brief advert for an event at Burlington House.

    Generally, I am quite a big fan of stunts – as they can engage an audience who never thinks about chemistry at all – and I certainly thionk the RSC should keep trying to grab people’s attention. I even liked the ‘Sherlock Holmes would have been a chemist’ stunt – as to some extent it made people re-assess what chemists actually do. However, in the toast sandwich case, I feel the RSC got it wrong. They chose to discuss a product which no-one in their right mind would actually want to eat, and then they tried to associate it with ‘good’ chemistry. Most people (rightly) see white bread as a fairly unhealthy product, with high carbohydrates and quite high calorific value. The fact it has been fortified with chemicals actually would put most people off, as they (and me) would much rather get their vitamins by eating fruit and vegetables. Even in tough times, fresh fruit and veg are not that expensive.

    The idea to connect a toast sandwich with ‘economy’ was at the heart of this stunt – but it doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Potatoes are much cheaper than bread (weight for weight) and also contain vitamins (and fibre – unlike the white bread toast sandwich). You can even add a bit of gravy to your mash/chips/jacket and get a bit of protein/flavour without breaking the toast sandwich budget!

    If the RSC really want to make people think about food science and chemistry, there are far better stories out there. How about genetically engineered golden rice which can cure disease in areas of the world where diet is very limited? What about how to control the Maillard reactions which make roast turkey/goose taste so delicious, without dehydrating all of that breast meat? What about the clever chemistry which underpins baking – a current national obsession after the Great British Bake Off. All of these things are positive and aspirational – but a toast sandwich?? I’m afraid that most of the general public would only take away the message that chemically manipulated food is a pretty miserable affair.

  11. Peter Scott says:

    To reuse a “have I got news for you” gag… scientists at the RSC have worked out how many calories there are in a toast sandwich. Meantime, RSC cantine staff are working on a cure for cancer.

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