10 September 2011

The rise of an expert and his influence on public opinion

Science and it's influence on Us 

In my previous post I told you about trust and how important it is for different organizations to maintain it. I also mentioned that it is often common for PR specialists to use opinion of experts to support their argument and influence target audiences (we tend to look up for expert’s view if we don’t know much about a specific issue). I think I can call such practice third party technique (which isn’t limited only to use of experts, it can also include celebrities, well respected people or organizations, etc.). But let’s stick to scientists (experts) for now.

“Society today, in its material features, would be impossible without science” – said Mark Brake (author of Science Communication).
But science and scientists not always were as respected and looked up to as today. Here is a short history of how we’ve become to consider scientists’ opinions in everyday life activities, and how public relations used this change for pursuing its goals.

From useless members of social order to ultimate authority
Perhaps majority of people in Western world think of science as a profession respected and worthy their trust. After all, Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2010 shows that academics and experts, unlike government authorities, are viewed with more trust than other profession by the public. However, these trust ratings, were not always at the same levels, or in the same order on trust barometer.

In the 19th century scientists’ “explorations were appreciated but not particularly revered”. Until 20th century “scientists would in general remain ‘inoffensive but curious and useless members of the social order’.”[1] For a long time the arguments of the authorities carried most weight with the public. It changed at the beginning of 20th century when science became very influential and it has become “the ultimate authority”; and although not many could understand it, science was widely reported in the press.

In the 1920s there was the notion that “important decisions should be left in the hands of experts”[2]. Since then people in Western world relied on experts’ opinions on everyday basis in such matters as diet, health, business, advertising and lifestyle.

The time when PR stepped in
One of the first people who used experts in his PR practices was Edward Bernays. While working for such clients as Richard Bennett, actor who tried to produce a play portraying sexual topics (at the time thought to be obscenely honest), Bernays looked for support of medical experts, which as a result prevented police from raiding the play. He also worked for United Fruit Company, where medical researchers promoted bananas as healthy food for children; and used the inventor of the light bulb - Tomas Edison – as an icon in his campaign for General Electrics in rebuilding company’s image[3].

In 60’s and 70’s in America due to the findings of scientific researchers environmentalists raised the alarm about ecological problems concerning the Earth. Due to these environmental issues people started loosing trust in big businesses and corporations lost political influence and public respect. Large sectors of the public began to associate them with such problems as air and water pollution. For the first time since Great Depression, people started questioning the legitimacy of big businesses.

In response to scientific findings and public concerns governments came up with new laws and regulations and the industries had to obey them. These were to protect the environment. Among them were Clean Water and CleanAir Acts. This pushed corporations to create a new form of activism, which turned strictly against environmentalists. And I could argue that where health or environmental topics appear, the scientific opinion seems to follow and that’s what corporations did, they turned with their PR activities to experts.

Also governments reach out to experts to enhance their public relations efforts in certain situations. That’s what Spanish government did when Spain had environmental problems in 1998 and 2002. The government used scientists to calm the public and control their outrage.  Such practice is sometimes referred to as “an instrumentalisation of scientific expertise” (which predicts hiring ‘loyal’ scientists and shun those which can speak to the media). People such as, i.e. politicians often “shield themselves with credible scientists who guarantee decisions” backed up with evidence.[4] Arguably, this is why also corporations hide behind scientific expertise while reaching for public support, because today the status of science is enormous and whoever tries to dispute established facts can easily be dismissed and called a “nut”.

[1] (Rampton and Stauber)
[2] (Rampton and Stauber)
[3] (Rampton and Stauber)
[4] (Bauer and Bucci)


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