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Australasian Biotechnology (backfiles)
AusBiotech
ISSN: 1036-7128
Vol. 11, Num. 3, 2001, pp. 21
Untitled Document

Australasian Biotechnology, Vol. 11 No. 3, 2001, pp. 21

BIOTECH COMMUNICATION

MAKING MEDIA HEADLINES

Paula Fitzgerald Agrifood Awareness Australia and Bob Seamark, Pest Animal Control CRC

Code Number: au01038

In January of this year, the Pest Animal Control CRC made media headlines in Australia and around the world. Many considered it an undesirable media event and not a situation they would like to see their organisation in. Others welcomed the media coverage as an opportunity to participate in a much-needed debate about science, and specifically gene technology research.

Bob Seamark, CEO of the Pest Animal Control CRC was in the thick of the media frenzy. We invited him to share his story and offer some advice.

"Scientists create killer virus" is the stuff of dream headlines and public nightmares, and a significant public relations challenge for the scientists involved.

First the facts. The research that created this headline is part of a program to apply leading edge biotechnology to develop effective, non-lethal biological control agents for introduced pest animals such as the rabbit, fox and the introduced house mouse. The aim is to use fertility control to reduce pest populations through immunocontraceptive vaccines delivered in the wild via viruses.

The CRC has a policy of total disclosure of research results, believing in the public's right to know. Thus when unexpected experiment results emerged in June 2000 the CRC consulted partner and sponsor organisations, government, defence and other scientific authorities as to the best way to announce the findings. The consensus view was to publicise the findings through the media, coincidental with the publication of the data in an internationally respected scientific journal. This ensured factual reference was always available as the story mutated during its world-wide transmission by the media.

Publicising this discovery certainly contained an element of risk as it threatened to add significant fuel to the already inflamed GMO debate. Certainly the worldwide media furore evoked by the CRC's media release raised the ire of some of our peers and, understandably, caused our research sponsors concern about their stakeholders' response.

Several months after the event, the CRC maintains that transparency is the only viable option, particularly if the biocontrol agents under development are to have any chance of being accepted by the public for release sometime in the future.

Reviewing the lessons learned from the experience, the important message was the obvious one, the need to be prepared. Despite the careful planning, the story leaked and the generous two-week timeframe organised for a planned media release collapsed to one day to deal with incident management. Fortunately, the CRC had access to expertise and support from partner organisations in achieving this. The formation of a small management team and agreement that information be issued through identified spokespersons was critical to ensure source information was measured and factual, but the capacity for stories to mutate on replication still impressed the biologists.

In terms of advice to others, I would offer the following recommendations:

  • be prepared - it pays to think ahead, and it is never too early to start planning for such events;
  • expect leaks - this is inevitable, so you should anticipate it occurring;
  • don't panic - remain calm at all times and most importantly, ensure everyone is informed;
  • aim to get the best advice you can when you need it - ensure you maintain good relationships with partner organisations;
  • establish a planning and issues management team and ensure this group meets regularly throughout the event, particularly to recap and reassess the situation;
  • agree on a principal spokesperson and aim to support this person. As well, identify other 'specialist' spokespeople to support specific 'angles' of the story;
  • use your website and regularly update information - this saves considerable time in briefing individuals;
  • be pleased that your organisation has a policy of transparency;
  • request a copy of articles/stories, from journalists, prior to publication - while you may not have an opportunity to suggest edits and correct material, you will at least be prepared when material is published;
  • keep the home/ground team informed;
  • once you are prepared go for it - it will be demanding but it is not the time to loose confidence.

 

  • Agrifood Awareness Australia provides gene technology media training for potential spokespeople including scientists, industry representatives, and regulatory spokespeople. The courses run for two days and consist of mock radio, television and print interviews, as well as a mock media conference. For further information contact info@afaa.com.au or telephone (02) 6273 9535.

Copyright 2001 - AusBiotech

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