CERN: Life, the universe and everything

His mission may be to make science cool, but things can get pretty heated at the frontier of human knowledge, says CERN’s comms chief James Gillies.

During the summer of 2008, at the CERN headquarters near Geneva, scientists and engineers from around the world were preparing to launch the largest and most expensive experiment in history. In a circular underground tunnel 27 kilometres long, stuffed with supercooled superconducting magnets and accelerators, a collision of protons would hopefully simulate the Big Bang.

One of the breakthroughs scientists were after was the discovery of the Higgs boson, a particle that might explain the forces that hold the universe together. But concerns were growing in the media and the public that tiny black holes generated by the experiment could cause the end of the world. It sounded like something out of Angels & Demons, a book by Dan Brown about the development of a weapon using antimatter from CERN. But that was fiction. How could it go so wrong?

“The black holes story had been around for a while, but this time social networks made the difference,” says James Gillies, head of communication at CERN. “Similar voices were raised in 1989, when CERN switched on another collider, but without the internet they did not get any traction.” Ten years later, the black hole theorists were online and the inauguration of an accelerator in the US was delayed to publish a report on its safety. “In 2008 we analysed these cases and developed a communications plan,” Gillies says.

“We explained in dedicated web pages that the experiment only reproduces phenomena occurring in nature all the time. What we did not take into account, though, was that isolated voices could now connect through social media, and that mainstream media would be seduced by the buzz.”

Large or small, every organisation has its own black holes, but for most PR professionals this does not mean the end of the world. That is unless you work for CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. For more than ten years Gillies, 51, has been at the helm of CERN comms with the mission to make particle physics understandable. It is an ambitious task that involves, among other things, the joy of announcing Nobel Prize discoveries and the pain of responding to stories on the planet’s destruction.

Paradoxically, it turns out that the hype around an apocalypse scenario in the early days of Twitter and Facebook contributed to the popularity of the Large Hadron Collider, the giant machine where the Big Bang simulation was being attempted.

Gillies, however, could have done without it: “People were phoning me up and asking to stop the experiment for the sake of their children. We also received abusive letters and death threats.”

Big questions

The black hole crisis is an example of just how difficult it is to ensure both balance and credibility of sources when debating science. It is a question that has also been discussed in recent months with reference to the BBC’s reporting on climate change. “People look for certainty in science while science is (really) about degrees of confidence,” explains Gillies. “It is very important that science is well reported and decisions are made on the basis of evidence. If we do not make the right choices on climate change or medical treatments, we will be in trouble.” The questions remain: how do you explain evidence in a way people understand, and how far can PR go to make science popular?

Gillies admits that, while not fighting it, scientists are uneasy with the description of the Higgs boson as ‘the God particle’. “What we do has nothing to do with God – we do evidence-based science,” he repeats. It is interesting that the nickname comes from the title of a book published in 1993 by Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman. He apparently wanted to call it The Goddamn Particle because it was so difficult to find, but the catchy headline decided by the publishers exposed a much bigger issue: the positioning of science versus religion. “We do not question faith,” Gillies states. “Our scientific community is so big that all faiths are represented.”

Established in 1954 to promote European collaboration in peaceful research (the founding convention says it shall not work for military purposes), every day CERN brings together 10,000 physicists, engineers and students from universities across the planet; 2,400 are staff.

It is an enormous undertaking. Three thousand physicists and engineers from 182 institutions of 40 countries collaborated on the Large Hadron Collider, which was launched at long last in September 2008.

The story of the first beam making the round of the ring was followed live by 340 media outlets and covered by 450 broadcasters around the world. It was the first time CERN got more media exposure than American Space Agency NASA, which is considered the benchmark in science comms. And just like Apollo 13 (another mission named after a god), there was euphoria, compliments and loads of trouble to come.

Only nine days after the launch, a short circuit caused a helium leak and the resulting explosion moved a 30-tonne magnet half a metre out of alignment. Another crisis to manage, and to make matters worse, many journalists were still on the spot. “It was obvious that this was not a rehearsed exercise and that we had taken a massive risk in inviting the media. Many thanked us for showing them the real story,” remembers Gillies.

It took 14 months to fix the machines. As for public relations, things went well considering no comms crisis plan was in place at the time. Only later were procedures developed with the help of specialist crisis comms consultancy Steelhenge…

Continue reading on PR Week. Published in June 2014. Photo: in the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Geneva, Switzerland. © Claudia Delpero, all rights reserved.