CERN's comms chief James Gillies opens a window on the universe

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.

James Gillies: head of communications at CERN
James Gillies: head of communications at CERN

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.

Physics fanatic

Driven by "curiosity about what makes the universe tick", Gillies received a doctorate in physics from Oxford and took his first steps at CERN as a researcher in the mid-1980s. He then moved to Paris as head of science for the British Council. In 1995, his scientific background and an earlier internship at the BBC World Service earned him the job of science writer at CERN, where he became head of communication in 2003. Today he feels more of a communicator than a scientist and  claims a return to physics would require going back to school: "Science has progressed so much in the past years. Fifty people participated in experiments when I was as a researcher; now there are 3,000."

Gillies leads a team of 20 staff of 14 nationalities, only some of whom have a scientific background. Their responsibilities include media relations, the web, social media, audiovisuals, publications, internal comms and engagement with local communities. The comms team also provides tools for partner institutes across the globe.

It is not surprising that CERN’s primary target audience is the 21 member states (20 European countries plus Israel). They finance the work with about one billion Swiss Francs per year (£650m), out of which 1.4m Francs (£930,000) are spent on comms. Each country pays a percentage of the budget on the basis of their net national income over the previous years. The total is "comparable to the budget of a large university", says Gillies. Other donors support the experiments. The Large Hadron Collider (10bn Swiss Francs or £6.6bn in 14 years), for example, was funded by member countries, observer nations and loans from institutions. Private companies and the European Union also contributed. In time, private supporters will be able to join in through the CERN & Society Foundation.

Science lesson

Next to institutional donors, the public is the other natural target audience. An education department targets schools to train the next generation of scientists, while the comms unit aims to spread knowledge in society. "The problem is that people think we are cool, but no one has a clue what we do," Gillies explains.

A major headache is the name of the organisation, which is currently being reconsidered. The issue is the word ‘nuclear’, which reflects the focus on the atom at the time the organisation was founded, whereas today research focuses on particles. The problem is how to make all this  accessible to the uninitiated.

"We work on the basis that everyone has a natural curiosity about the universe but many are frightened, so we try to satisfy their interest while helping to overcome fear," explains Gillies.

Every quarter the editorial team identifies news likely to emerge from the experiments. It is already known, for example, that the Large Hadron Collider will make headlines next year, when it will be switched on again after two years of maintenance. Planning, however, is easier to say than do.

"Sometimes having information in advance is just not possible," explains Gillies. "When an experiment comes to a result, the director-general is informed. He then contacts groups working on other experiments to confirm the findings. At this point teams cannot talk to each other and we do not know the outcomes until the last minute."

The web plays a big part in the comms mix. Among the first to embrace Twitter in 2008, in 2013 CERN was named by Burson-Marsteller as the most effective organisation on the site, with messages retweeted more than 100 times on average. CERN receives 500 media visits every year, and hosts online events as well as hackathons to create games and apps with artists, programmers and web developers.

"We will use more social media in the future. We want to reach out to a wider community of bloggers and commentators and develop more stories on how the technology we develop can make people’s lives better, for example," says Gillies.

The key messengers are the scientists. In the absence of a marketing department, it is often they who decide brand elements such as names of experiments. "We want to demystify the idea of Einstein-like characters and show the ordinary life of a community passionate about its work," he adds.

Fortunately, CERN has received considerable help from some of its scientists who have played a huge role in disseminating its science. Take Brian Cox: before becoming a professor of physics, he was the keyboard player of D:Ream, a pop band in the 1990s. He now presents BBC science programmes and his TEDx talk explaining the Higgs boson has been viewed more than two million times. Then there is the Italian Fabiola Gianotti, coincidentally also a trained pianist. A finalist for Time’s Person of the Year in 2012, she has become an icon for women in professions dominated by men.

Celebrities aside, the feeling when walking around CERN is of a low-key community, where people play table tennis in the garden, heat home-made meals in microwave ovens and definitely do not wear the emblematic white coat. Parts of former experiments decorate the complex, and The Globe of Science and Innovation, the wooden exhibition centre at the border between Switzerland and France, connects CERN with its neighbourhood. Local communities are the third target audience and, as the organisation grows in popularity, they see these laboratories as an opportunity to develop scientific tourism.

Uniquely the organisation has been awarded three Nobel Prizes for Physics in 60 years. The last one was awarded in 2013 to Peter Higgs and François Englert for their theories on the Higgs boson.

The announcement of the particle’s discovery was made on 4 July 2012 and was yet another moment of excitement and tension. Director-general Rolf-Dieter Heuer chose to go public at the biggest event for the sector, the International Conference on High Energy Physics. Individual experiments had not gathered enough evidence to confirm the discovery, but being the only person to have seen all results, he could make the call. That day the webcast of the seminar at CERN was visited by almost half a million people.

Despite being part of these achievements, Gillies considers having made CERN the reference point for open science his biggest success. "Openness and transparency are part of the organisational culture. We do not even have a closed internet; all documents are available on our website," he says. "But my team has been a key driver in pushing this forward, inviting media and people to follow the great adventure that is research."

After all, this philosophy has been behind the creation of the World Wide Web. In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist at CERN, made the proposal for a network to connect computers with different systems, so that scientists in any part of the world could share data and documents. Perhaps even more importantly, in 1993 CERN decided to make the World Wide Web available to the public.

The irony is that at the time no one could predict what the web would become: and the birth at CERN of what revolutionised the world of comms was never communicated to the world. That is unlikely to ever happen again.

Five comms lessons from CERN

1. Be proactive and don’t be afraid to show the real story, even if it is about an #epicfail.

2. Prepare for the worst when developing crisis management plans.

3. Review the brand periodically to reflect mission and values.

4. Win trust with transparency.

5. Be sure: it is social media that will make it or break it.
Five physics facts

1. Every year ATLAS (one of the experiments of the Large Hadron Collider) records 3,200 terabytes of data, which are the equivalent of 7km of CDROMs stacked on top of each other.

2. Although the Higgs boson was a major discovery, 95 per cent of the universe is made of dark matter and dark energy, i.e. we do not know about it.

3. With a temperature of -271.3°C, the Large Hadron Collider is the coldest place in the universe.

4. The collider consumes 120 megawatts of energy per year, equal to the household consumption of the entire Canton of Geneva.

5. There are 1,232 dipoles magnets in the Large Hadron Collider. Each of them is 16.5 metres long, a size limited by the maximum vehicle length allowed on European roads.

James Gillies is head of communication at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and author of the book How the Web was Born: The Story of the World Wide Web.

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