Tuesday, October 21, 2008

How PR 'spins' the atom

Here's an excellent piece by my colleague Alex Schmidt, who explains why "nano" is not appearing in the fine print on product packages these days.

A few years ago, plenty of companies hopped on the “nano” bandwagon, using the word in advertisements and product names. In some cases, the word "nano" was used to brand products that didn’t even contain nano-scale particles! Apparently, marketers imagined that the word would trickle into the mainstream to mean something vaguely cool, mysterious and futuristic. But those vague associations don't make for a particularly meaningful branding concept. You may have bought the iPod nano, but probably not because of its name.

Now PR folks have gone so far as to invent a new investment sector for companies that use nanotechnology: Cleantech. It’s a word meant to suggest an innovative, environmentally friendly product that won’t be associated with “nano” if it loses its good name. More here.

Alex is an excellent radio and print journalist who, like me, discovered the hard way that it's tough to sell a nanotech-themed story to the mainstream media because after all the hype and the scare-mongering are weeded out, real nanotech is, well, kind of hard to wrap your brain around. So, the stories that see print and make the airwaves are the ones that focus on dreams or nightmares. Or, like Alex's story, how companies choose to "spin" their atoms.

I spoke with Alex sometime last year, when she was attempting to sell her piece. She wrote to me about how publications that are already biased for or against nanotech development are the ones that are most likely to buy a nano story.

"These are the only types of magazines that will cover nano, because they're the only ones willing to be completely biased on the topic," she said. "That is, other publications that are more level-headed would never cover the topic because the "gray area" truth about nanotechnology just isn't sexy enough."

Higher journalistic standards, it seems, brings out those "gray areas" and make for a less-sexy story with no definitive conclusions about whether nano is "good or bad."

One national publication killed her story outright after a frustrating back-and-forth with an editor. Why? Well, to paraphrase her editor: It was not as provocative as it could have been and he became confused about what nanotechnology really is. There was no central thesis over whether we should worry about nanotech or not.

In short, it was killed because nanotech is still, essentially, a basic science story with an awful lot of hype, fear, hope and hucksterism surrounding it.

She sounded a lot like me after having covered nanotech a few years longer than she has.

"I reported the *&^% out of my piece and feel I have lots of good info in my head at this point," she said.

I know. I know. Maybe we'll start a support group.

But with The New Plastic, Alex, you done good.

The Case Of God v. Nanotech
Cleantech's the new nano; nano's the new dot-bomb

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