The demand for openness in climate change science

The BBC reports that Canadian government climate scientists are being ‘muzzled’ – banned from speaking freely about their findings.

From my own experience in the PR industry, the guidelines from the government department’s media protocol are actually extremely normal for a large organisation:

Just as we have one department we should have one voice. Interviews sometimes present surprises to ministers and senior management. Media relations will work with staff on how best to deal with the call (an interview request from a journalist). This should include asking the programme expert to respond with approved lines.”

The emphasis above is my own. It’s the accepted traditional PR wisdom that a group of people, department or organisation should have ‘one voice’ with a single, simple message for the outside world. The logic makes sense: it sends a single, clear unconfusing message. One that supports the ‘positioning’ of the organisation.

But this is a classic example of the kind of tension we are seeing more and more of as we move to a more ‘open’ world. The scientists care more about the truth than they do about ‘approved lines.’ And whilst it’s easier for the public to comprehend a single unified ‘position’ the truth is often more complicated, and inconveniently, it may not support the position that the leaders of the organisation would like to put out there.

Some organiations will fight this kind of openness for a long time, but it is an unstoppable force. It is too easy for people inside organisations to speak the truth, whether the media protocol sanctions it or not, and as society becomes more open, people will demand that the organisations they work for allow individual voices to be heard as well as a ‘unified message.’ Or they will leave and go somewhere else.