12 October 2013

Free crisis PR advice for Scientific American online


To:  Mariette DiChristina, Scientific American
From: David Wescott
Re: Censorship on the blog network


Your online reputation has been significantly damaged by the removal of a post from Dr. Danielle Lee's Urban Scientist blog, the subsequent explanation (and clarification) for the decision, and the resulting discussion.

As you know, Biology-online.org, a member of the Scientific American Partnership Network, solicited Dr. Lee to contribute content on their site without offering financial compensation. When she politely refused, the blog editor there called her an "Urban Whore."  Readers of Biology-online.org have asked questions about this on the site's forum, and an administrator has offered a response, albeit an insufficient one.  Scientific American's response to this situation so far is to remove Dr. Lee's response from her blog.

It does not appear that Dr. Lee was contacted in advance of the decision to censor her post. This is a mistake.  Further, the brief reasoning that has been shared publicly - that the post was not relevant enough to "discovering science" or that it "verged into the personal" - does not withstand even brief scrutiny.

As you know, Dr. Lee's post deals with an issue that is directly relevant to everything that happens at Scientific American online - the actual value publishers place on science communication. The fact that  Dr. Lee draws upon personal experience makes her post more compelling and credible, not less.  Other blog network contributors have already pointed to posts that clearly do not meet the "discovering science" criteria yet remain published. Further, they point to comments from the blog network editor that suggest a "write whatever you want" policy.

This creates a crisis with three specific "audiences." The first audience is internal.  Contributors to the network no longer have clear guidance on criteria or process for publication. The second is an "opinion elite" or audience of those who follow Scientific American closely and can impact its reputation within the scientific community. These peers view censorship as a last resort, and are not convinced of any imminent threat Dr. Lee's post posed to the blog network to merit its immediate removal.  Finally, the public at large is an important audience.

In this regard, the coverage in Buzzfeed is particularly damaging, as it reaches an audience far larger and far more diverse than Scientific American online. This is the audience Scientific American needs to expand its readership and fulfill its mission, but for many of them this story is their introduction to your publication.  They see this as an obvious mistake.  The statement provided to Buzzfeed is passive, vague, and elusive. Further, it puts Scientific American on the wrong side of the discussions about racism and sexism, particularly in science and technology.

As you know, several posts have now emerged criticizing the editors at Scientific American, even some from within the network.  The blog network editor has been uncharacteristically silent.

In the immediate future, you can expect more critical comments from more prominent sources, including organizations that advocate for women and people of color.  You can expect more critical posts from within Scientific American, and possibly even attempts to re-publish Dr. Lee's post verbatim on the network that censored it.  You can expect departures from the blog network. You can expect individuals to look much more closely into the relationship you have with Biology-online.org and the way in which the editors came to their decision to take down the post. You may see a downturn in the number and quality of submissions for your guest blog. Ultimately, you may see a decline in online traffic and ad revenue.


The editors at Scientific American online should republish Dr. Lee's Post and offer an unqualified apology.  Dr. Lee's post does not likely violate any guidelines set out by her editor, and the quality of writing met appropriate standards.  The statement of apology should also recognize the organization's failure to support Dr. Lee when she was treated disrespectfully by an ad network partner. The embarrassment of admitting you were wrong, even now, is far less damaging than the credibility lost by continuing to defend an indefensible position.

The editors should contact Biology-online.org to express their strong disapproval of the way one of their blog contributors was treated, and review the possibility of terminating this partnership.

The editors should draft a communication to blog network members informing them of the apology offered to Dr. Lee and explaining the process by which the editors came to their decision. They should be available to all network members and other relevant parties for a Q&A session.

The editors should work with the contributors to establish a clear set of guidelines, rights, and responsibilities for publication.

The editors should publish an editorial offering a public and unqualified apology, reinforcing the organization's commitment to free speech, and emphasizing the value of their contributors' work.

The editors should work with a third party with expertise in STEM diversity to convene a discussion on how the publication can support this cause more effectively. There are many individuals and organizations with expertise here.  Veronica Arreola is a good start - she has expertise in the topic, and she is well-regarded in online communities that extend far beyond science.

The editors should strengthen partnerships with journalism advocates, business leaders, and centers of entrepreneurship such as the National Association of Business Incubators to explore new ways to underscore the value of science writing and develop more sustainable business models for freelance science writers.  While this is a long-term project with an uncertain future, taking this or a similar effort will demonstrate Scientific American's commitment to its contributors and a more sustainable financial future for all parties.


Unknown said...

Excellent advise, David!

Barbara Tomlinson said...

This sounds like a solid plan. I think it's interesting how the Scientific American mistake took so much attention away from the initial travesty of asking somebody to work for free and then calling her a whore. Is it just because SciAm had a good reputation to start with and Biology Online is unknown and decidedly shady when you look closely? Why is the punishment worse for someone held in higher esteem to begin with? I'm asking seriously because I'm a clueless physicist and you're a PR expert who might actually know.

David said...

Thanks Barbara. SciAm is held to a higher standard because they promote it themselves. Their error is worse because they took the affirmative step of silencing someone who was trying to defend herself, and they trotted out an indefensible justification. All kinds of power dynamics at work here.

Biology-online guy basically outed himself as a troll. Danielle had the last laugh with him.

What I don't understand is why SciAm even cares about this. The blog post would have ended it if they just did nothing. They really didn't even have to say anything to the biology-online people - Danielle showed she's capable of defending herself.

But someone saw this post and decided to get a process going that led to the post's removal. THAT'S the real story here.

joannema said...

Just throwing this out there: any idea what kind of legal issues could be forthcoming against SciAm by the naming of the biology-online website directly in a post? What if concern for a slander suit was the motivation to remove the post? Perhaps higher up corporate legal counsel is needed at this point (NPG/MacMillan), that is not available on a weekend. Of course, if that were true, that would have been something to say at least to Danielle, if not to the public. Then again, the ins and outs of legal issues aren't so simple. I support Danielle, I think the post needed to be written, but I have myself been burned by higher ups worried about legal ramifications and I was the one they put on the stake to save their potentially sued behinds. I'm not saying what SciAm did was right, I'm just saying the motive may not be trying to hinder her as a woman, as a scientist or any other reason. It might just be CYA, which makes people act very peculiarly. They could have asked her to mask the name, at least initially, but in a panic, removed the entire post. I don't know. Just surmising.

David said...

UK libel law is different than US law, but as long as Danielle was truthful it really doesn't apply here. Further, libel is essentially a civil action and it doesn't appear likely biology-online has the resources to press a (weak) case.

David said...

UK libel law is different than US law, but as long as Danielle was truthful it really doesn't apply here. Further, libel is essentially a civil action and it doesn't appear likely biology-online has the resources to press a (weak) case.

Anonymous said...

Superb analysis and quite excellent advice.

The one thing that could make the advice better - the one thing I was still looking for -- would be a strong recommendation for SciAm to take a principled, unequivocal stand against misogyny in science and technology where it is utterly rampant. Without that, none of the rest is all that meaningful or enduring IMO. We need a STOP to such attitudes and incidents, not merely a polite PR-veneer after they've occurred.

Simeon Beresford said...

If the blog post was removed because of legal worries. then SciAm's statement should reflect this.

"We removed the blog post because of legal concerns"

One does not give false or misleading reasons for actions if one wishes to retain credibility.

Simeon Beresford said...

It seems SciAm has taken your advice.

Barbara Tomlinson said...

Thanks for the reply David. That sounds reasonable.

But I'm even more confused after reading the excuse, not apology, on SciAm today. I don't for a second believe they fact check all blog posts. I would have believed they took it down because the email exchange may have been reproduced without permission, but not believing Dr. Lee really received it is just insulting to her. This is just getting worse and worse. Her original post was perfect. Professional and educational. This aftermath is just a horror show.

Simeon Beresford said...

so on closer inspection it seems that the apology was seen as lacking. not least because they changed their story. something I said would undermine their position. If you do change your story be up front about it. say the original version was not true say why it was not true and give people a reason to believe you this time.

In contrast I thought the Biology Online apology was rather well done.

Horace Boothroyd III said...

It seems to me that people are dancing around the core issue: Scientific American has become a weak kneed watered down gee whizz popsci rag that no one of any consequence would take seriously. A hundred years ago it was a hard nosed science journal, fifty years ago it could still influence science policy, but these days anyone looking for serious news or policy goes to New Scientist.

This urban whore business is just icing on the delusional cake.

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