One of the most brilliant, thoughtful and personable scientists I met in my many years in the higher education public relations business was Allen Newell, one of the fathers of the field of artificial intelligence. With long-time collaborator and Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon, Newell built the foundation of modern computer science research and was at the forefront of a vanguard of scientists who linked computing with human cognition.
Newell’s life work (he died in 1992) was focused on cognitive architecture. As he described it, “a fixed set of mechanisms that enable the acquisition and use of content in a memory to guide behavior in pursuit of goals. This is the essence of the computational theory of the mind.” Newell and Simon were among the first to offer up the idea that computers could be programmed to think.
Newell’s research group at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in the 1980s focused on Soar, a cognitive architecture constructed in a software system that was capable of solving problems and learning much like human beings do.
As one might guess, Soar drew significant national news media attention, and it was the work of Carol Pearson, one of our terrific corps of public relations professionals at CMU at that time, to pursue and manage coverage of the project. A cover story in Science magazine and another major piece in Insight that appeared in close proximity in 1988 put the national scientific spotlight on Soar. Newell was thrilled, but some of his younger, less experienced colleagues were not. They complained about the time they had to put in to work with the writers. The stories stimulated additional interest from other reporters, scientists and interested people, and that was a problem, too. Worst of all, the stories were not totally accurate. Despite their best efforts, the writers had made some mistakes. Some scientists questioned the whole publicity deal.
The scientists were expressing legitimate and understandable concerns, and it is the role of campus public relations pros to address them and mitigate them if at all possible. Carol, who has gone on to have a distinguished public relations career, went to work, but she faced some intransigent critics.
Enter Allen Newell. Before offering a prescription on how to handle media inquiries and other information requests by working with public relations, here’s what Newell had to say to his colleagues in an e-mail:
“The responsibility to communicate to the lay and lay-scientific public is part of the general ethos of science. It is a good thing.
“Good things can happen when one communicates into the open world that the media reaches—good for Soar, good for the Computer Science Department, good for CMU, good even for you and yours, and me and mine. This is one reason why universities keep public relations departments.
“It is usual for such stories to be distorted, sometimes in minor ways, sometimes in critical ways. It occurs for all kinds of reasons that range from a minimal investment by the journalist, to the journalist’s lack of understanding, to honest miscommunication, to our failing to make ourselves understood, to our dealing with the press in a cavalier fashion, and on and on.
“It is likely this message is much ado about nothing, and that the dust will settle very rapidly. But just in case it doesn’t, I wanted all of you to be prepared.”
In a talk he gave in December 1991, Newell delivered his “maxims for a dedicated scientist” and his final admonition was to “choose a final project that outlasts you.” Soar was that project for Newell, but his meaningful words in support of communication and public relations live on as well