Keeping tabs on public professors

University PR staff monitors high-profile names and those with a track record of controversy.

Kyle Potter

HeâÄôs been published in national journals, quoted in the New York Times and even appeared on Oprah. Dr. Michael Osterholm is used to the national spotlight.

His latest media appearance is an editorial in todayâÄôs edition of New England Journal of Medicine, “Foodborne Disease in 2011 âÄî The Rest of the Story.”

Behind the scenes of any professorâÄôs public activity is a team of public relations employees working to increase the University of MinnesotaâÄôs visibility and protect its reputation.

But not all newsmakers bring the positive attention that OsterholmâÄôs editorial will. In some cases, itâÄôs a precarious act to balance the importance of academic freedom and the name of the University.

Osterholm, director of the UniversityâÄôs Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, emerged as a national expert on the H1N1 virus in 2009. Before that, he was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey ShowâÄôs 2006 special about the avian flu.

In his most recent foray into the limelight with NEJM, Osterholm tackled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its analysis of the occurrence of foodborne illnesses in the U.S.

The goal of an editorial like this, he said, is to have an impact on public health policy.

“I think [the editorial] will be widely circulated in Congress and around government agencies âÄî people looking at the funding side of things,” he said.

With a professor as accustomed to the process as Osterholm, Justin PaquetteâÄôs job as manager of public relations in the Academic Health Center was easy.

Osterholm approached the AHC and gave the public relations staff a rough estimate of when his editorial would be published, as most researchers typically do.

From there, itâÄôs a matter of boiling down the information to its essentials so it can be put into a press release and then connecting the faculty member with the media.

Paquette and his colleagues are intermediaries between professors and the media, Paquette said.

But if a faculty memberâÄôs activity may bring negative attention to or criticize the University, the employee is unlikely to approach PaquetteâÄôs staff beforehand.

The UniversityâÄôs only policy is that faculty cannot claim to speak on behalf of the school, University said spokesman Daniel Wolter.

Keeping an eye out for professors or faculty who enter the spotlight is a challenge for the public relations staff âÄî made all the more complex by the never-ending news cycle and increased use of blogs.

Wolter said he will run searches on high-profile names, like OsterholmâÄôs, to see if theyâÄôve made the news recently.

The AHC communications team has a number of Google Alerts set up to point out any of their physicians or researchers who have made the news, Paquette said. But he also keeps his eye on faculty members who have a track record of negativity or criticism.

“I do monitor certain faculty membersâÄô work just to make sure that things arenâÄôt out there that may be misleading or confusing to a reader,” Paquette said.

Wolter said his role is more reactive âÄî not preventative âÄî to any negative attention brought to the University.

Perhaps the highest profile case of criticism lobbed at the University lately is the response to Dan MarkingsonâÄôs suicide.

A group of eight professors from the Center of Bioethics, led by bioethics professor Carl Elliott, has continually asked the University to further investigate the 2004 suicide, which it believes showcased “an alarming series of ethical violations and lapses” during the clinical trial in which Markingson participated.

When word came through that Elliott was writing a piece on MarkingsonâÄôs suicide for the magazine Mother Jones, Paquette and others at the AHC asked the editor if they could add a supplementary piece to “complete the picture,” Paquette said.

That request was denied, and ElliottâÄôs article, “The Deadly Corruption of Clinical Trials,” ran in the September 2010 issue without the information Paquette wanted to add âÄî namely, an outline of the reviews into the case that excused the doctors who cared for Markingson prior to his death.

“WeâÄôre charged with making sure that any information thatâÄôs out there is accurate,” Paquette said.