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11. Dealing with the media

11. Dealing with the media

11.1 Introduction

Of all the sciences, biomedical research attracts the most attention from the press. This media interest undoubtedly has its benefits. By explaining the results of research in the media, scientists and their institutes are able to justify the spending of public and private funds. Favourable reporting can also speed up fund raising and, if it is sustained, give research institutes a reputation for solidity and expertise. In addition, the media are so influential in society that researchers' personal careers sometimes benefit from favourable media attention. These benefits are countered by risks that do not always make it easy to communicate the message in an undiluted form. The media increasingly represent an arena in which commercial interests play a major role.

Parties involved
When they are trying to attract publicity, researchers should realize that commercial or political interested parties are almost always dependent on the researchers' cooperation. This is what gives them the opportunity to communicate research findings independently and with integrity.

Major parties in the publicity surrounding scientific research are:

  • Commercial companies
  • Government/public sector
  • Funding agencies
  • Patients' organizations
  • The media themselves.

Commercial companies
Pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology companies, suppliers of biomedical equipment and any other parties in the private sector (often operating internationally) utilize the results of scientific research in their marketing - and hence their commercial objectives. They try to generate and steer positive publicity for their products by, for example, approaching researchers and asking for their cooperation. This can include a variety of forms: from inviting researchers to collaborate on audio-visual productions of the company to asking for quotes for a press release.

The paradox is that scientists' contribution is requested because of their academic independence, while at the same time this independence could become compromised by their involvement.

The public sector at the local, national and European level 'steers' the publicity about scientific research in the direction of political goals or policy principles that are not always explicitly formulated. Research results that are not consistent with those goals, can then be marginalized or left out.

Funding agencies
Government funds and charitable funds depend on political and societal support. This means that they have to substantiate their raison d'ĂȘtre. The results of research they sponsor are also used for their own profiling and branding.

Patients' organizations
Patients' organizations often rely on financial support from commercial companies that supply drugs or medical devices for the patient group. This puts the independence of such a patient organization at risk. Researchers who attract publicity together with patients or patients' organizations should keep this in mind.

The media themselves are not devoid of commercial self-interest. News is surprisingly often related to acquisition and the possibility to earn advertising revenue. The linking of advertising space and editorial coverage is common. Even such reputable scientific journals as The Lancet, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine and Nature bombard the media with weekly press releases in order to uphold their authority.

11.2 Conflicts of interest

It should be stressed that the publicity interests of researchers and industry, government and funding agencies might coincide. If, however, a researcher's contribution to publicity statements becomes part of the marketing of third parties, scientists must always be vigilant. The scientific independence of both the researcher and the institution can be compromised by:

  • One-sided presentations of scientific results, making them appear too rosy.
  • The selective presentation of results.
  • Stretching the implications of the results beyond the scope of the study.

11.2.1 New media

Researchers must take into account the institution's rules on the use of social media. Note that the laws on privacy, research and patient data also apply to publication through social media.

New media characteristically present information to the public without intermediaries. This involves some risks. News sites, blogs and social media accounts of opinion makers are not bound by, or do not always keep to the principles of fair journalism. Moreover, the dividing line between news and opinion is thin. If the integrity of a researcher or institution is questioned in these media, it is recommended not to react individually. Researchers can contact the department of communications for assistance.

11.2.3 Rules and recommendations

When they are trying to attract publicity, researchers should realize that there are pitfalls - and that 'personal attention' or 'public recognition of expertise' appeals to the ever-present vanity of scientists (who, after all, are humans).

The following guidelines will help to avoid publicity pitfalls. Special attention is paid to publicity in which industry plays a role. This is because, firstly, companies can often benefit from a very large marketing and PR machine. Second, because the relationship between the private sector and the healthcare sector is increasingly put under the magnifying glass of journalistic productions, and the relationship between science and commerce and the interests of scientists are the prominent themes.

By complying with the guidelines, conflicts of interest - and even the suggestion of non-transparent relationships between the UMC/the researcher and interested third parties - can be avoided.

  1. Publicizing your research, as well as contacts with the media about research, should always be done through the communication department of the institute; this also applies to publicizing initial research outcomes on the internet and social media. The independent nature of the research is emphasized by the institute's seal of approval.
  2. The independent status of their institutes enables researchers to resist media pressure from bodies that provide all or part of the funding. Examples of commercial influence are:
    - A fully sponsored symposium related to a PhD thesis or a major publication, with the publicity in the hands of a commercial PR agency.
    - Sending out press releases to speed up the registration of a drug or to facilitate the introduction of a young biotech company on the stock market.
    - Loaning equipment on the condition that favourable publicity is generated.
    - Funding the printing of a thesis or book in exchange for including the company logo, or printing special copies for customers and journalists.
    - A sponsored meeting with media with expert opinions about a new treatment, product, drug or therapy.

    In the case of government-commissioned research, researchers frequently find that the ministry or municipal authority, as the commissioning body, would like to arrange publicity itself. The golden rule here is to let the institute (i.e. the communication department) arrange the reporting or, in the case of an official presentation, at least demand the right to see and approve press releases before they are issued.
  3. To avoid suspicion of conflict of interest, researchers are not to feature in any media production (whether AV, web or other) created by a company that is the manufacturer of the investigated product/therapy.
  4. There should be openness regarding the funding of research unless it has been entirely funded from the institute's own research budget. Transparency can prevent suspicions arising and aspersions being cast. It is important to inform the communication department fully in this respect, not only to avoid undesirable publicity but also because charitable funds and research organizations - such as the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), the Netherlands Organisation on Health Research and Development (ZonMw), the Top Institute Pharma and the Center for Translational Molecular Medicine (CTMM) - insist on being mentioned so as to be accountable to the community for their expenditure.
  5. Popularizing expectations about or the findings of research in a responsible way can entail risks. The media almost always gauge the importance of basic research in terms of potential clinical applications. Many a 'medical breakthrough' is broadcast into our living rooms because the researcher allowed him-/herself to be led more by exciting theoretical vistas than by the actual significance of his/her findings. A classic example is the scientist who, without beating about the bush, predicts that good results from in vitro or animal tests mean that the drug will probably be effective in humans. The same care is called for when presenting the results of clinical trials. Here, the danger of overgeneralization is more that of identifying over-large categories of patients who will potentially benefit from a new or modified form of diagnosis or therapy. Caution is always called for as regards the actual availability to patients of a new test or drug. In all these cases, the researcher should be acutely aware that overenthusiastic pronouncements can excite expectations among patients that cannot be met, resulting - understandably - in disappointment or anger.
  6. Extreme caution is also called for when interim findings point to a successful outcome: there is a great temptation to release results prematurely. The urge to make positive noises halfway through may also be fuelled by uncertainty about the funding of follow-up research that has been identified. Researchers who anticipate their final results in situations of this kind are playing with fire: there are far too many documented cases where the final outcome was disappointing.
  7. It may be advisable to take the initiative yourself if it can be expected that the media will be interested and if the research (findings or subject matter) could easily result in misunderstanding or touches upon a hot topic in society. In many such cases, an effective approach is to issue a press release in collaboration with the communication department (to 'set the tone') or to present the news in the institute's magazine, where there is more scope for careful argumentation.
  8. Premature publicity is undesirable if an article on the project has already been offered to a scientific journal. The top journals in particular have strict rules on this, with sanctions that can go as far as refusal to publish the article or the issuing of a reprimand. Their regulations are not always clear, however, when it comes to taking part in conferences while the work is in progress or participating in promotional ceremonies prior to publication. Again, it is advisable to contact the communication department, which in borderline cases can reach a firm agreement with the editor of the journal in question. Prior consultation may also be desirable if the article is mentioned in a press release on the forthcoming issue of the periodical; the point here is usually to set the precise date when the embargo expires.
  9. When using a press release or advertisement to recruit trial subjects, take care to describe the conditions accurately. The phraseology is absolutely critical when it comes to describing the potential effects of the drug, especially in trials involving patients. Information about possible side effects and uncomfortable tests must not be veiled, and the likelihood of being assigned to a placebo group must be indicated clearly and the reasons stated. The publicity on these important points must tally completely with the research protocol. In the case of a multicentre trial not coordinated by the institute, the researcher is still responsible (also to the institute) for recruiting subjects correctly.
  10. Publishing in non-editorial (commercial) sections issued with newspapers is undesirable, because they are produced and published by a commercial party, not under the responsibility of the editor-in-chief. They are in fact advertisements or the content is related to advertisements.

11.3 Epilogue

This chapter does not claim to be exhaustive: the situations that occur in contact with the media (including the internet) differ too widely. If questions about publicity arise that have not been dealt with here, please contact the department of communication.

Additional information
Regeling omgaan met de media (VUmc)
Richtlijn social media (VUmc)
Regeling nevenwerkzaamheden (VUmc)
Richtlijn Gunstbetoon door bedrijven (NFU)

The VUmc communication department can be contacted directly during office hours (020-444 3444). Outside office hours, it can be contacted through the switchboard (020-444 4330)

The AMC's communication department can be contacted directly during office hours (020-566 2421). Outside office hours, it can be contacted through the switchboard (020-566 9111).