Distinguishing Public Engagement – when is it Market Research, PR and Sales?

This started as a comment on Tim Harper’s Cientifica Blog here and grew! It is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but is basically a serious effort to make useful distinctions.

I too had been thinking that the term ‘public engagement’ is far too broad. I have read a number of excellent papers on the subject, but still what it is and what it isn’t has eluded me. Here are a few thoughts stimulated by Tim’s blog on how we could make the distinction.

‘Public Dialogue‘ usually means asking people what they think about an area, product or in nano’s case an ‘ology’ after some form of explanation, usually with an academic of variable communications talent telling them a bit about it by video or in person. This is not dialogue, this is MARKET RESEARCH. This is a perfectly acceptable practice, it’s useful and important to know what people think about your research or potential or actual product, but it is often used to denote public engagement when only a handful of people have actually been engaged with. Therefore it strikes me it can’t be ‘public’ engagement in the way it is often used. Pretty much most of the government sponsored public engagement we have had with nano, synbio, GM etc falls into this category. There are some very sophisticated methods which really help provide very useful feedback about public opinion, such as Citizen’s Juries, but let’s not pretend it’s any more than Market Research.

Other ‘public engagement’, generally with governments, universities or more rarely companies going out in the media and direct to talk about their ology or product and explain more about what it can do and why they are doing it is called PUBLIC RELATIONS. Again perfectly acceptable, to promote your ology, approach, product, research etc, but it is promotion and it is designed pretty much always to persuade someone of your point of view. PR can also be done ‘anti’ a technology, by those who don’t agree with your position or product. That happens all the time too.

Then there’s ‘EDUCATION’. That’s also a form of PR, but usually a bit better done, not quite so self promoting and has an underlying public good element to it. I’m not meaning to be snide about this, obviously it is a ‘public good’ that the public, young and old, has access to a better understanding of their world, the products they buy, the technologies behind the products they use and that will shape the future. But much of the time the tone is promotional, designed to persuade, and fails to reflect the issues in the round, to engage those being educated in the challenges associated with the technology or issue at hand. However, sometimes in Science Cafe’s, events, festivals etc attempts are made to do more than just talk about the science, this counts.

Tim’s Jehovah’s Witness scenario and other more direct approaches, are often also called ‘public engagement’, but in any other life are called SALES. This is really a more direct version of PR and Market Research, but with a clear agenda to generate public acceptance. (I won’t even start on the ‘deficit model’ of engagement!). Again, nothing wrong with that at all. But the trouble is Sales approaches never really address any of the potential uncertainties or complexities, they are usually relentlessly ‘pro’ (or in fact ‘anti’) whatever they are selling. This means that issues then become more polarised and black and white. Not sure that is good for understanding or engagement.

The most important thing about good Sales is to have a product that people want. Sometimes Market Research can help identify that, sometimes not. But it should always fill a real need that someone has, whether they knew they had that need before they found out about the product or not.

However where the customer doesn’t trust the company or the product you need to try much harder with your Market Research, PR and Sales and of course your product. The benefit has to be abundantly clear and unequivocal, you have to really listen to your market research and adapt and evolve the product to reflect the concerns of your customer. You have to act in a trustworthy way, that usually means being much more open about they way you develop the product, what potential downsides there may be and how you have made sure it is safe for them to use. This could just be called ‘good business/research’, but it sometimes gets called‘corporate responsibility or responsible research’. It’s a shame for science, but here as in any other arena it takes a long time to get a good reputation back when it’s been damaged or lost. Sometimes the damage is self-inflicted, sometimes it’s collateral, but however it happened the route to reputational resurrection is long and hard.

Then there is IMPARTIAL INFORMATION, which is what we were trying to do with www.nanoandme.org, which tries to be neither PR or sales, but aims to provide impartial information for the public about the issues in the round. The trouble is as a company or even a scientist sometimes, it is tricky to pull off, without it being seen as PR.

The author of the information is critical to its acceptance and trustworthyness. We, as an independent, multi-stakeholder organisation, hoped to have credibility by doing it. Governments sometimes can and consumer groups and some ngos can also do it well but impartiality is difficult, if not impossible to pull off. However, it is incredibly important, so that the public can have some source of info which gives the issues in the round and shows the different agendas for them to interpret and make better informed choices.

Is there anything left which really is public engagement? This is the bit I’m not quite clear on.

I wonder if the distinguishing characteristic is that if you listen and change based on the feedback you get, wherever you get it, you have done ‘PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT? Sometimes that can happen in response to Market Research and Sales. Sometimes it can be ‘designed in’ to the process of research, as with the EPSRC Nano Medicines Dialogue, where that was the purpose of the engagement process.

There is ‘CO-CREATION’ or ‘CROWD-SOURCING’, that might be the ultimate public engagement where you get the public to actually help you create your product or research. Time consuming all round, not necessarily producing anything more innovative, or more acceptable, but interesting and easier with social networks and more people willing to participate.

Please feel free to disagree vehemently with this, it is a brain dump, not a PhD thesis!

NB: Poor Prince Charles has been vilified unfairly and never actually said Grey Goo at all and actually raised very sensible and thoughtful issues about nano most of which have not effectively been answered to this day. See Nano&me – What about the Grey Goo!

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