Press releases should be about people

We’re all increasingly familiar with corporate press releases. There are countless websites that regurgitate the corporate and institutional public relations output for wider and wider audiences.

If you’re familiar with the blogosphere, you will almost certainly recognise that many posts simply echo the notices provided by the likes of Eurekalert, AlphaGalileo, and the more generic wire services. Indeed, Sciencebase has a set of pages that lists the current press release headlines so that interested readers can go straight back to the original sources. That said, I try to be original in the actual content of posts.

But, what about more traditional media, broadcast news, newspapers and magazines? Surely, they don’t act as echo chambers for the words of wisdom from public relations officers…

Well, they do and they don’t. Often, the trade press and the specialists pages of many publications will repeat verbatim innocuous press releases. But, thankfully, there are still journalists out there, as opposed to churnalists, who will take a press release as nothing more than inspiration and do their own background research on a subject and produce an original news item that may not resemble the original press release.

At the cutting edge of journalism, the relationship between press office and editorial desk is usually fraught, especially in sensitive business areas when major-league finances and power struggles are involved, or when environmental concerns are at the forefront and a large corporate is in the proverbial firing line. In such cases, thankfully, the editorial output is rarely synonymous with that of the media relations office. They both pull in the opposite direction. Often the editors and journalists looking to lambast an allegedly unscrupulous entity and the corporate entity attempting damage limitation.

But even in the world of workaday press releases, the journalistic perspective rarely coincides with that of the press office. Now, Finnish scientists have made a simple, but fascinating revelation that might not only help corporate press officers get across their message to journalists, but also allow journalists to write a more holistic story that avoids over-simplification of often complex issues.

Johanna Kujala, Tiina Toikka and Anna Heikkinen of the Department of Management Studies, at the University of Tampere, have analysed dozens of press releases and the newspaper articles that emerged and found that although a company may be willing to communicate on the subject of corporate responsibility, in whatever area, regulatory, environmental, health, employee relations, press releases rarely focus on the people.

The majority of press releases present information about the financial, social and environmental issues but ignore what the researchers refer to as the stakeholders, the people affected by the information within the press release. The perhaps obvious revelation comes when they compare these press releases with what the journalists wrote and discovered that it is the relationships between the company and people that are of sole interest to the media. This is not simply a matter of the journalists looking for the human interest in a bleak corporate press release, but attempting to fulfil a simple desire to present the news in a way that is relevant to the public at large.

Figuratively, editors ask one big question of their journalists — So what?

The answer to that question usually relies on demonstrating that the story being pitched is relevant to people, those anonymous stakeholders. Press releases that gives journalist facts, data, and information essentially amount to background reading and noise in the echo chamber. A press release about people can help answer the editor’s big question.

Research Blogging Icon Johanna Kujala, Tiina Toikka, & Anna Heikkinen (2010). Communicating corporate responsibility through media Progress in Industrial Ecology — An International Journal, 6 (4), 404-420

Climate emails, MS trek, Gulf Stream safe

Latest science news snippets

  • Hacked climate emails – Hacked climate email inquiry clears Jones but questions remain
  • Trekking for multiple sclerosis – Wendy Booker (, is determined to change the face of MS. Her mission? Climb the Seven Summits—the highest mountains on each continent; making her the first person with an MS diagnosis to do so. Expectations are she’ll conquer Everest, at 29,000 feet (the last of the Seven Summits) this May — right around World MS Day.
  • The Gulf Stream ‘is not slowing down’ – The Himalaya, now the Gulf Stream are hot topics among climate change skeptics who assert that the climate models are once again throwing us a curve.
  • The Alchemist for March 23, 2010 – The Alchemist has an eclectic mix of news this week from a new recipe for rechargeable batteries that could keep mobile devices active for longer and make for longer-lived batteries to an ancient recipe for blue pots from the New Kingdom of Egypt. In analytical news we learn that moonshiners may have to scrap their stills thanks to a portable alcohol monitor that works better than FTIR, and supramolecular chemistry in polymer science is the strong link in the chain. In Europe, tension builds as the deadline for registering thousands of chemicals under REACH regulations fast approaches. Finally, no awards this week, but there is a trendy new iPhone app from the American Chemical Society.
  • Graphene – an oil exploration game-changer – The flow of water, steam, or certain gasses over surfaces coated with carbon nanotubes or graphene can generate small amounts of electricity. Researchers hope to explain this phenomenon and use their findings to create tiny self-powered devices that travel through naturally occurring cracks deep in the earth and can help uncover hidden pockets of oil and natural gas.

Materials, water, and light

Some scientific links from this week, including my Materials Today news round up.

  • Periodic Table of Parodies – Yet more periodic table fun and games
  • Similar websites to Sciencebase – This neat little tool automagically works out your site's keywords and searches for other sites with the same keywords
  • The long and winding road to synthetic silk – Unravelling the secret of silk's incredible strength could allow materials scientists to develop a synthetic version for a wide range of applications in engineering, aeronautics, and even
  • Bubbling up water repellence – Nanoscopic air bubbles prevent water from wetting a nanopatterned superhydrophobic surface
  • Magnetic solder for 3D microelectronics – A low-melting and magnetically-responsive alloy could be the key to soldering the components of three-dimensional microelectronics
  • Water vapor and global warming – Climate change denialists often cite water vapour as the main greenhouse gas, supposedly accounting for almost 100% of the greenhouse effect, but this is wrong. Water vapour and clouds account for only 65-85% of the greenhouse effect.
  • Light controls matter, matter controls X-Rays – Light has an upper speed limit, but not a lower one, in some materials it is possible to slow light to almost a standstill

Awards, PTs, and green phones

  • Awards – Research Blogging – Winners and finalists in the Research Blogging Awards 2010 announced today!
  • A Clever Periodic Table from Sciencebase | Genome Alberta Education – It's official. My periodic table of science bloggers is clever, even if it maybe didn't include enough Canadians.
  • Go Green! Use the Internet on your mobile phone – Nokia claims updating Facebook from your mobile phone uses just 1% of the energy needed to do the same thing on a desktop PC. (Of course, that doesn't take into account the wireless infrastructure and cell network power demands, I'm sure).
  • Periodic Table of Science Bloggers on Universe Today – Proud to see that Universe Today featured my PT of science bloggers. I created it on the morning of March 19, and by afternoon of March 20 there were just four elements waiting to be filled by bloggers.
  • Science blogging – Why you, as a scientist, shoud be part of the future of science communication…

Periodic table of science blogs

Periodic table of science blogsMany, many thanks to everyone who joined in the fun and frolics in helping create the Periodic Table of Science Bloggers.

I cannot quite believe how quickly it got filled – 118 elements – having only started it on Friday after a spate of periodic posts. Thanks for all the tweets, suggestions, retweets, comments and emails. You might like to know that the final element, Ho, went to Hilary Sutcliffe’s Blog.

Apologies to everyone who suggested great sites that didn’t fit, either because the “initials” were wrong, or because their chosen element had already been taken. Maybe I should now start auctioning off elements to the highest bidder…after all it seems to be sending steady new traffic to the blogs that got an element. Maybe not, don’t want to appear too mercenary. Then again I could create a second version using a spiral or 3D periodic table, perhaps.

Thanks again for joining in and feel free to carry on linking, retweeting and sending kudos and donations… LOL

Chemical science, night sky, scientific trust

Delicious links March 16-18

  • Chemical Science – Building linear polymers from monomers, inaugural paper in RSC's new journal
  • Bing maps now let you scan the nighttime sky – The stars are coming out tonight…even when it's cloudy
  • Sex and social networking – Patterns of prostitution revealed by analysis of social networking site has important implications for spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
  • 7 steps to restore trust in science – Every journey begins with a single step, here's the seventh to restoring public trust in science
  • Malevolent Design: The Death of a Loving God – Never before has a book so aggressively levelled the charge that a creator deity, if it were to exist, would be completely and unimaginably evil. Darwin said it first when he talked about parasites, but think opium poppies, oral cancer, spina bifida, famine, malaria, ebola…where's the intelligence in any of that?
  • Breaking Bad – Every chemist's favourite TV show returns with a third series in March 2010 BrB -bromobismuth ?-)
  • science – Ten Word Wiki – Learning by prediction and observation instead of making sh*t up

Periodic Table of Science Bloggers

UPDATE: The PT is now complete. I’ve colour coded the elements to suit bio, chem, physics, space, and medicine. In all it took three days, with the last one added, Ho.

Given the intense interest and heated debate surrounding an old Sciencebase post about novel periodic tables, I thought I’d have a bit of fun with one of my own…click on an orange element to visit one of my links.

Periodic Table of 雷竞技官网

If you’ve got a chemistry/science blog and your initials or its initials fit one of the elements that I haven’t used for my own stuff, let me know and I’ll add you to my PT.

Real chemistry at the periodic table party

UPDATE: Please let us know – which element are you?

Teaching chemistry has changed so much since my day. This classic Youtube clip highlights the way the elements might interact at a periodic table party. Carbon is popular with the hydrogens, the noble gases are the emo wallflowers, but it’s the fight that breaks out between potassium water that even had my teenage son laughing. Check out the chemistry, or lack thereof, between hydrogen and neon…

What causes the seasons?

Outside the tropics we experience four seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn, or Fall, and Winter. These occur because the Earth’s axis about which it rotates once a day is tilted at an angle relative to the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Because the axis always points towards the north star throughout the year, the seasons are cyclical. In the northern hemisphere, when the North Pole points towards the sun, the sun’s light is more directly overhead at mid-day and the sun is in the sky for longer; it is summer. At this time the opposite is true in the Southern hemisphere.

Spring and Autumn are the half-way points when the Earth’s tilt is neither angled towards or away from the sun. These seasons usually have milder temperatures than the extremes of winter and summer. The difference between spring and autumn is essentially one of biology as the organisms experience warming day after day in Spring and respond accordingly and cooling day after day in Autumn.

So, all that in hand, it must have been quite confusing for viewers of the BBC’s latest scientific blockbuster “The Wonders of the Solar System” to watch the earth wobbling like a spinning top as it orbited the sun and learning that this change is the cause of the seasons. Actually, the way they showed it, the Earth was static and the sun was orbiting it.

Now, the producers were actually using the 3D graphics to show the relative position of the tilt of the Earth’s axis to the “fixed” sun. Whereas what they showed did resemble astronomical precession (which does not cause the seasons). Precession is the regular oscillation of the axis of any spinning object whether gyroscope or planet, that occurs as the object rotates.

Precession will be familiar to anyone who has played with a child’s spinning top or a gyroscope (a spinning top for grown ups). The main axial oscillation is slower than the spinning but is quite visible. For the much bigger Earth, spinning on its axis once a day, the oscillation of that axis is much slower. The main large precession of the Earth’s axis takes tens of thousand years to complete a single loop.

Despite precession being a long timescale feature of the Earth, it has a number of observable effects, if you’re willing to wait. First, the positions of the south and north celestial poles appear to move in circles against the space-fixed backdrop of stars, completing one circuit in 25,771.5 years (measured at the year 2000 rate). So, the north star, Polaris, today lies approximately at the north celestial pole, this will change over time, and other stars will become the “north star”, today’s north star was not the north star seen by the earliest human navigators thousands of years ago. It also provides a point of confusion for historians looking at ancient star charts and scientists must take it into account in climate studies, for instance.

I modified this post after Brian Cox commented. I *did* understand what they were showing and what they were trying to show. But, I and others, felt the imagery might have been somewhat confusing for the average viewer.

Antimony, x-rays, childhood obesity

Science news links for March 12-15, including the latest on my column:

  • Feverish New World X-ray – X-ray crystallography has allowed US researchers to discover exactly how one type of New World hemorrhagic fever virus latches on to and infects human cells. The work offers a much-needed lead for new treatments.
  • Marking up childhood obesity – Metabolic fingerprinting has been shown to be a powerful tool for exploring Biomarkers in a range of disorders and the pathophysiological mechanisms of disease. A new study has now applied the technique to childhood obesity to intriguing effect.
  • Myrtle medicine – German researchers have successfully devised and implemented a total synthesis of myrtucommulone A, tracking progress and structures using NMR spectroscopy. The compound is physiologically active in anticancer and antibacterial screens, and the synthesis opens up the potential for making simpler, but active analogues.
  • Antimony analysed in food packaging – A simple, yet sensitive, method for detecting inorganic antimony in food packaging has been developed using cloud point extraction combined with electrothermal atomic absorption spectrometry (ETAAS).
  • Unlocking the opium poppy’s biggest secret – Researchers at the University of Calgary have discovered the unique genes that allow the opium poppy to make codeine and morphine
  • What is the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest? –
  • Antibiotics against stomach cancer – Helicobacter pylori often causes stomach ulcers and, in extreme cases, gastric cancer. f1000 Medicine Reports, Seiji Shiota and Yoshio Yamaoka discuss the possible eradication of H. pylori infections using antibiotics.
  • How cars are killing us – Cars are lethal, but nowhere more so than in the developing world.