Public relations is communication, not just advertising

I am pulling back for a moment to try and look at the broader picture.  It is not easy and it certainly offers little comfort.  I have written before on what I see as the creation of a global upper class whose members are experiencing the 21st century differently than the rest of global society.  As a result, I feel they are losing touch with the rest of us and, in the process, are endangering themselves and everyone else.

.We need leaders, people who speak with authority, to help us judge issues and get on with our lives.  Very few of us are leaders on a national scale, much less a global scale, thus leadership at that level is extremely important.

We cannot do it well, ourselves.  We have to focus on making the “system” work.  We get the kids off to school.  We work at our jobs.  We plan for everything from a college education to retirement to a vacation.  Daily life keeps us very busy.  We have time for the “big issues”, but we do not have the time to research them and understand them fully.  That is where leadership and its authority play a primary role.

I am not speaking of political leaders alone. Leaders in finance, investing, science, technology, education and a wide range of other disciplines are as much leaders as any politician, at least in regards to their discipline.  Leaders by definition have followers.  With good leadership that inspires confidence, followers can keep track of the issue at hand, but not feel as if they are left to make the judgments that we expect from leaders.  Leaders set the direction and provide the “plan”.  As long as we feel confident in their leadership, we can follow.  If we lose that confidence, we are left to judge for ourselves and the results can be negative.

There is plenty of evidence of this loss of respect for the authority of leadership.  I have been writing about AI and genetic engineering, and my concern that these two fields have not got their collective acts together.  Some feel I am overstating the issue.  But a Pew Research Center study of American attitudes on a number of sci/tech issues in January of this year brings the point home.  To what extent does the American public (followers) trust the judgment of their scientists (leaders)?  Take a look at this.

Here is another from the same report focused on GMO foods.

You are looking at an obvious communications problem. If people are having trouble accepting scientific authority on the subject of genetically-modified foods, what do you think their reaction will be to genetically-modified humans? And this in a nation whose people are well-educated and well-informed by global standards and who, for decades, have been very proud of their nation’s contributions to science and technology. Sci/tech has a problem.  It no longer can assume that it speaks with “authority” to the public.

You can read a summary of all the Pew Research Center findings and download a free copy of their report at their website.

In the past, scientists normally didn’t have to worry much about this.  They didn’t get as much publicity and they didn’t really want it as they didn’t really need it.  And when they got publicity, it was often very positive. Two very popular scientists in my lifetime were Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan. Very different men, but both with a positive and passionate love of science and the technology that flowed from it. They represented “authority” and they were very well-respected by the public globally.

We were excited and delighted when humans finally made it to the Moon. But today we are watching as sci/tech turns its powerful eye on the cells of our bodies and the very genetic code which defines us. That is a very different direction and brings very different challenges.

We have faced this situation once before when science and technology created something dangerous to human life. We called it the Manhattan Project. But it was done in absolute secrecy, so the final results were the first time the public was aware of what had been done. I wonder how it would have turned out if the Manhattan Project had been public knowledge and open to debate from the beginning. That was unthinkable at the time, but today, it is simply business as usual.

I am being hard on AI and genomics, or so it seems, but I am a proponent of both.  I want them to succeed to everyone’s benefit.  My primary concern is that they may end up creating opposition to their work before they have a chance to demonstrate the benefits.  They cannot do this behind closed doors. They need to be public in their justification for what they are doing and provide clarity as to their goals.

They need to begin as soon as possible.  In the global community created by the Internet, whether we like it or not, new initiatives that are as important as these have to be concerned about public relations.  It is not a matter of obscuring the truth or white-washing it, but treating the public as adults and explaining their work carefully and with sensitivity to legitimate concerns. Public relations is communication, not just advertising.

In my next post, I plan to offer a few ideas of how both AI and genomics can refine their research approach and their public image to everyone’s benefit.  They are meant to be helpful, not definitive, but I cannot complain without at least putting some ideas out there for consideration.

Final note – I am scheduled to be interviewed tomorrow, Wednesday, at 6:30 pm local time by Classic Business, a business report on FM 102.7 in Johannesburg, South Africa.  I am told I will be joined by Antonio Regalado, Senior Editor for Biomedicine for the MIT Technology Review, a gentleman whose work I have linked to from here before and for whom I have great admiration.  I understand it will later be a podcast for download.  If all goes well and a podcast is available, I will share it with you.

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This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. I also now tweet to share articles and essays that I think are important, but do not have room for here. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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