Today’s PR controversy? Would you believe gay sheep?

It was a similar headline on PRSA‘s “Issues and Trends” email that set off my WTF radar this morning. sheep-googly.gif

I clicked the link to the International Herald Tribune and found a fascinating story about out-of-control communication doing violence to truth and good scientific work. The case presents a challenge to PR professionals who must explain and defend complex science in an increasingly rumor- and emotion-fueled media world.

It started when Robert Roselli, Oregon Health & Science University, launched research to explore why approximately 8% of rams prefer sex with other rams. Not only did a lot of folks misinterpret Roselli’s intentions, many of them — including the Times of London — got the story wrong.

navratilova.jpgThe activists piled on — PETA, animal-test groups, gay rights groups, then gay rights/PETA advocate/tennis star Martina Navratilova. Martina said Roselli’s work “can only be surmised as an attempt to develop a prenatal treatment” for sexual conditions.

“The more we play God or try to improve on Mother Nature, the more damage we are doing with all kinds of experiments that either have already turned or will turn into nightmares,” she wrote in an e-mail reply to a reporter’s query. “How in the world could straight or gay sheep help humanity?”

Roselli can tell you precisely how his research may help humanity. But by the time he assembled the talking points, the gay-sheep controversy had spread like a grass fire in the Santa Ana winds. He launched a social-media counter campaign by enlisting several prominent scientific bloggers. But it was way too late.

Bloggers representing animal rights and gay rights positions fanned the flames, seemingly convinced that Roselli must be the second coming of Josef Mengele. Surely he’s part of a conspiracy to eliminate homosexuality through negative eugenics.

Sheesh.

I wonder how many PR professionals would be comfortable tackling a story with so many scientific, ethical and communication complexities. The call for such professionals is getting louder, but I see PR students every day who go out of their way to avoid math and science courses.

Irony of ironies? If Roselli is successful in demonstrating that homosexuality is actually a physiological trait, won’t that erase all the anti-gay nonsense coming from the fundamentalist crowd?

Yikes, for an educated guy I ask dumb questions sometimes.

3 Responses to Today’s PR controversy? Would you believe gay sheep?

  1. newmanj says:

    Hi Bill,

    Jim Newman here from ther communications office at OHSU where this all happened

    Some corrections for you below (as one of the people at the center of all this)

    PETA started the false rumors this…the Sunday Times reported on the rumnors as if they were fact.

    Also – the research is now a few years old – we actually first presented it and publicized it in 2002

    in reality, the bloggers were very nimble in correcting the errors. The traditional press re-reported the Sunday Times false story again and again without ever confirming whether it was true. (read the ABC piece below)

    If you are interested in the research, PR issues – you should also read the stories that I linked to below – alot more factual than the Sunday Times!

    Thanks for writing about this

    The Guardian: Gay sheep? Let’s get the facts straight
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1989430,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=11

    TIME Magazine: Yep, They’re Gay
    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1582336,00.html

    National Post: How I fell for PETA’s gay ram scam
    http://www.canada.com/nationalpost/columnists/story.html?id=01a31a64-0add-4761-b5ef-35aafbc1d5e2

    New York Times: Of Gay Sheep, Modern Science and Bad Publicity
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/25/science/25sheep.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

    ABC News: Are Some Sheep Gay?
    http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=2823706&page=1

  2. Thanks for the additional feedback, Jim. I’m also pleased to see public relations professionals keeping a close eye on the blogosphere. (More on that concern in tomorrow’s post). I’m going to link our faculty who teach Ethics & Issues to this story. Some of our students might find it worthy of more inquiry.

  3. Olivia Hogue says:

    As a science major trying to dip my foot into public relations, I was so glad to see a post like this in my professor’s blog!

    In my upper-level anthropology courses, we often discuss the barriers to disseminating scientific knowledge. I’m thinking mainly of how new scientific findings rarely provide easily interpreted black-and-white results. What may be reported as, for example, a correlation between a certain food and a certain disease, often leads people to assume that food causes that disease.

    You’d think K-12 education would provide people with an understanding of the difference between a correlation and a cause, or other basic scientific terms like theory and hypothesis. Public educations fails, however, and so people become distrustful of the scientific research community, wondering how to believe a new scientific finding when it contradicts one of a week before. Add in ethical concerns and radical activist groups spouting rhetoric like the ones mentioned in your post, and you have a huge body of scientists severely in need of a good PR person to come along and clear their reps.

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