Blinded by science

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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For years now, provincial government departments have benefitted from two streams of education and experience when they fill communications jobs: either they take in ex-journalists (while the much-lesser-paid journalists left behind mutter about their former cohorts “going over to the dark side” — idealistic balm for the underpaid soul), or they Hoover up graduates from public relations programs.

The hirings are a curiously dichotomistic approach: hiring an ex-journalist presumably involves “it-takes-one-to-know-one” logic, whereby the former journalist is aware and alert to the twists and turns of journalists’ questions, style and methods. Hiring a public relations graduate is more like seeking a scientist who has experienced the journalistic dark arts through careful observation: with enough time spent behind the glass, you should be able to calculate how likely it is that the monkey’s going to do that with the banana, and what you can do about it ahead of time.

The logic all seems pretty hit or miss: whether you hire a dark horse (hoary, bitter ex-journalist) or a white knight (shiny, keen PR grad), the danger exists that neither training method will actually prepare your nascent communications specialist for the strange world of begging, fury, yelling and pointed snidery that can be the stuff of journalistic discourse.

The problem? Both former journalists and public relations graduates are in the communications business, which means both are critically unable to progress beyond understanding any communication that is not uniquely their own. In other words, they can succinctly describe their own situation in their own terms, without ever understanding that those terms will lead to the most spectacular of eye-rolling at the other end of the telephone line.

I’d suggest a tectonic shift: as the provincial government moves from the Williamsoscene to the Dunderdalassic, maybe any new hires to the communication corps could come from a new source.

Throw away any pretense of collegiality here — six months in,

any communications specialist is bound to have developed an abiding hatred for the media that can’t be cured with anything less than four quick red wines or three strong mixed drinks, and the journalists, well, they hate the communications people from the get-go, just as

a matter of principle. (You can hear the long-term communications people snorting already: “‘Journalist’ and ‘principle’ in the same sentence? Who are they trying to kid?”)

So cut to the chase: why bother dancing around the schism that’s bound to occur? Hire physicists — preferably those who specialize in the obscurely theoretical, like plasmonic and photonic structures, to fill the communications spots.

Imagine the possibilities: a journalist could ask “Was the minister aware of the diversion of funds?”

Instead of answering, “The minister is unavailable and, in any event, could not comment on a specific case,” the new plasmonic communications expert could answer like this: “By shifting their structure by just a few nanometers, we can focus light at different positions inside the bowtie with remarkable certainty and predictability. … This work demonstrates that these nanoscale optical antennae resonate with light just as our simulations predict.”

Sounds direct, but means close to, well, nothing.

By the time the journalist is ready with the next questions, your photonic specialist would have

this at the ready: “We wondered whether there was a way to use light already present in our bowties — localized photons — to probe these fields and serve as a reporter. … Our technique is also sensitive to imperfections in the system, such as tiny structural flaws or size effects, suggesting we could use this technique to measure the performance of plasmonic devices in both research and development settings.”

By then, the journalist will have only heard the words “reporter” and “flaws” and “tiny size,” think that they are being talked down to or belittled, and everyone will have to cut to the chase: confusion, mutual mistrust, and, soon, a deep and abiding dislike.

Situation normal. On the very first day.

(One footnote — both journalists and communications people will dislike this column. And both, despite being in the communications business, will get angry by — wait for it — misreading the words. The more things change …)

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

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  • Anon
    February 09, 2011 - 08:14

    I'd just like the environment minister to have a degree in biology. the transportation minister a degree in civil engineering. etc. Why are we electing such unqualified people to do nothing?