PR Failure #16: A Science Journal’s Negligence to Affirm the Truth

Aaron Blank / May 7, 2019

 

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Another Month, Another Blunder.
It feels like one crisis after another has been hitting Seattle. Last month, we talked about Boeing’s PR failure surrounding its 737 MAX airplane challenges (which you can read about here.) And now we’re feeling the impact of the crane collapse that took place in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.
But one of the local-turned-national crises that has been most prevalent in the news this year is the outbreak of measles, which has officially become the largest outbreak in more than 25 years. A public health emergency and political debate, we’re looking at the PR side of things, and how one science journal’s approach, aka The Lancet, may have failed to stop the spread of measles, 20 years ago.
The Story
The first measles vaccination was developed by 1968 as the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. By 2000, measles was eradicated in the U.S., thanks to a highly effective vaccination program and measles control initiatives.
Fast forward to 2019, and there have been more than 700 confirmed cases of measles across the country. For those of us at Fearey HQ in Washington state, near the outbreak in Clark County, we see first-hand how quickly the deadly disease is spreading due to fear and misinformation caused by vaccine hesitancy.
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How did MMR vaccination fears evolve to where we are now? It dates back to 1998, when The Lancet, a monthly, peer-reviewed scientific journal, published research by anti-vaxxer and faux scientist, Andrew Wakefield, falsely connecting Autism with the MMR vaccine.
As one of the oldest and most prestigious journals, scientists immediately lashed out at The Lancet for backing Wakefield’s research. Ten of the 13 authors involved demanded the publication be retracted as results and research did not correlate. It was clear Wakefield catered the “research” to tell his personal anti-vaxxer objective. (NOTE: We’re not debating the research, we’re just stating the facts based on what the science community is saying.)
The Lancet’s history with Wakefield was controversial from the start. With a more aggressive approach, The Lancet may have been able to squash a harmful mistrust of factual scientific research. However, since 1998, the journal and the editorial board at the time have made decision after decision leading to their own discredit, making this incident a perfect case study of what not to do with false information.
The Mistake(s)
1. Prioritizing Reputation over Facts
In an attempt to save face, editors of The Lancet chose to stand by their publication of Wakefield’s research…for 12 years. It wasn’t until February 2010 that they finally retracted the research, despite external voices discrediting Wakefield for over a decade.
Because a premier scientific journal was afraid to come clean, those hesitant to vaccines now believe they have scientific evidence to support their theories. Their movement spreads a public health emergency that has no simple solution as “awareness” has little impact.
The Lancet assumed that by only releasing information that showed itself favorably, it could get the scientific community off its back. In addition, retracting Wakefield’s research would convict The Lancet of fraud. Rather than admit its mistake, The Lancet attempted to cover its tracks, which brings us to the next mistake made…
2. Not Taking the Lead
In 2004, it became known that Wakefield received financial compensation for his research on the MMR vaccine from lawyers actively prosecuting vaccine-producing companies. This conflict of interest should have been clearly cited within Wakefield’s original article, as ethical standards dictate. Despite this, in 2004, The Lancet published an editorial addressing popular scientific misgivings about Wakefield’s research, but claimed it found no evidence that his research was faulty.
Following The Lancet’s retraction of the original study in 2010, Wakefield lost his medical license. For six years, Wakefield was able to practice despite unethical research methods, in part because The Lancet continued to back his research.
If the journal had prioritized the truth, rather than its image, and retracted Wakefield’s research in 2004, his presence among those hesitant to vaccinations may not have the same impact today. However, because the journal was reluctant to retract the false research, it not only furthered negative perception of its publication but allowed the public to believe Wakefield’s findings.
3. Leaving the Mess to Someone Else
Wakefield’s research single-handedly led to what is commonly referred to as the anti-vax movement. Today, the spread of misinformation and manipulative messaging on social media platforms, plays a major role in politics and activism. Many continue to support the link between the MMR vaccine and Autism without understanding the scientific facts or Wakefield’s egregious research methods. Although The Lancet recently released an impartial statement about the history of measles, at this point in time, it is an ineffective voice against anti-vaxxers’ targeted propaganda.
When The Lancet retracted Wakefield’s research in 2010, it should have published an editorial recounting mistakes made in an attempt to “un teach” those who believed Wakefield’s findings. Instead, the retraction had a subdued presence in the media, doing little to prove Wakefield’s research as untrue. The result is a misinterpretation of the MMR vaccine, which has caused social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to become hotbeds for misinformation.
The Lesson Learned
There are multiple impacts of the editors’ decisions not to retract Wakefield’s research when it was found to be fraudulent. The impact on social media and the spread of mischaracterized evidence is obvious. But there is also an impact on the scientific community, which is battling to retain the public’s faith in its expertise.
When left to their resources, people will find the information they seek, as those hesitant to vaccines have. By not better controlling the dissemination of information regarding the MMR vaccine, The Lancet allowed for not only a movement against vaccines to reinstate measles in the U.S. but created room for a growing mistrust in science.
To favorably shape public perception, The Lancet, along with other scientific institutions, will have to learn from past mistakes and rethink its PR initiatives. They and the rest of our community must bring everyone to the table when scientific expertise and jargon can seem so unapproachable.
Until next month,
Aaron Blank
CEO + President
The Fearey Group
For more information about The Fearey Group, check us out online at www.feareygroup.com.
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Aaron Blank

CEO & President, Partner

Aaron has been engaged in the conversation since the late 1990s, where he discovered his love of media while working at local radio stations. After five years as a radio reporter, anchor, producer and promoter in New York and Connecticut, he and his wife, Lacey, ventured west to begin his career in PR. Soon he caught the attention of industry legend Pat Fearey and the rest is history. Two decades later, as CEO and owner of The Fearey Group, Aaron leads with tireless enthusiasm and contagious drive. In 2014, he became the next generation owner of the firm. He takes his breakfast at 4:30 AM and never eats lunch alone. You can find him working to connect the next business with tomorrow’s leader.

Personal philosophy: do something amazing every day and be fearless!