In the beginning it was just a rumor that went around on the morning of May 4th. On this day, it was heard, the final results of the Heinsberg study by Bonn’s virologist Hendrik Streeck were to be presented – the study that had become a political issue after the interim report on Thursday before Easter. But when and in what form Streeck and his team would present the data, nobody knew at first. Only a fresh interview by Streeck in the FAZ was publicly available, from which one statement above all got stuck: that based on the findings of his study from the Heinsberg district in Germany, “more than 1.8 million” people with the Sars- CoV-2 virus should be infected.
In the course of the morning, a longer press release appeared on the website of the University of Bonn. The sober headline: “Results of the ‘Heinsberg study’ published”. Below this was a link to the manuscript in English, in which the research team around Streeck presents its results from the 12,000-inhabitant town of Gangelt on 37 pages of the international scientific community.
The publication of the final report almost en passant stands in considerable contrast to the way in which the interim results were presented on Maundy Thursday. Streeck and his two colleagues from Bonn, Gunther Hartmann and Martin Exner, from Bonn, presented their preliminary figures on the number of unreported cases and infection mortality in Gangelt at a press conference in the State Chancellery of Düsseldorf – alongside North Rhine-Westphalia’s Prime Minister Armin Laschet, who presented the interim report and the The scientists immediately used recommendations to support his demand for a timely relaxation of the then still existing nationwide shutdown. The press appointment in the State Chancellery was also broadcast live on a Twitter channel operated by the communications agency Storymachine called “Heinsberg Protocol”. For their scientific colleagues, however, the researchers delivered just two skinny sides.
Already after the interim report on April 9, the study by Streeck, which has gained worldwide recognition with its research on the HI virus in the past few years, therefore triggered a heated discussion. Some colleagues, such as Charité virologist Christian Drosten, also criticized the circumstances – not only because of the hasty publication of the interim results at a press conference with a top politician instead of a manuscript common in science, but also because of the unusual flanking by a PR agency. In mid-April, Personal-Financial.com then revealed that Storymachine had a much larger role in publicizing Streeck’s research project than was previously known.
Since Thursday, there has also been a decision by the German Council for Public Relations, which examined the role of the agency in connection with the Heinsberg study. In it, the self-regulatory body of the PR industry, Storymachine, expresses a complaint about “damage to the profession by unprofessional behavior”. The council had the impression that the agency’s actions in public “at least gave the impression of a manipulative representation and that scientific work was primarily used to participate in the expected high level of attention,” the decision says.
The agency opposes this: The PR council rejects a point on which Storymachine was not heard in the proceedings, while the allegation initially made in public of lack of transparency in identifying the sender of the Heinsberg protocol and naming sponsors had been eliminated , it says in the statement of a story machine lawyer. That had “nothing to do with a fair procedure”. The “new allegation now suddenly raised by the PR Council” that Storymachine’s documentation concept gives the impression that a pre-formulated narrative should be set in public is “not justified either”. Therefore, legal remedies against the Council decision will be examined.
Storymachine had always publicly stated about their own role in the Heinsberg study that they were only “documenting” the research in Gangelt, so watch Streeck’s team at work. In fact, the agency (claim: “We power your message”) had already developed a kind of “directorial plan” for public relations work in an early phase of the research work, in which it defined phases, goals and messages for communication – in a style like it fits, for example, a campaign for the launch of a product or an election campaign. The goal for the Heinsberg protocol is: “set a narrative”.
In addition, the PR concept, which emerged in the first days of April and provided Personal-Financial.com, already said that the results of the study were “representative” and thus “applicable to the general population in Germany”. In addition, the
April 9 is the date for the interim report – a few days before an important consultation of Chancellor Angela Merkel with the Prime Ministers on the exit strategy is planned. One of the messages for communication about the study according to the Storymachine concept: “We conduct research at the highest level. On site. With the clear aim of taking away the fear of the future from people, normalizing the situation again as quickly as possible based on scientific knowledge. “
The agency, which was co-founded by ex-“Bild” editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann, emphasized that she had neither political nor business interests with her Heinsberg project. Regardless of this, she also sent her PR concept to potential sponsors as a presentation in early April. After capital research, Storymachine representatives asked a number of companies, associations and foundations whether they would like to support the public relations work for Streeck’s study – including the Federal Association of Public Banks, the Atlantik Bridge and the RAG Foundation, with which the state of North Rhine-Westphalia is involved in the foundation’s capital and Prime Minister Laschet sits on the board of trustees. The RAG Foundation also maintains close contacts with Storymachine co-owner Michael Mronz, whose lobby company for an Olympic application for the Rhine-Ruhr region for 2032 called “Rhein Ruhr City” resides at the Foundation’s headquarters at the World Heritage Zollverein in Essen. Mronz is in turn connected to Laschet through his Olympic initiative.
According to Storymachine, in the end only two “partners” supported the “Heinsberg protocol” with a total amount of 30,000 euros: the provider Deutsche Glasfaser and Gries Deco Company, parent company of the Depot furnishing chain. The agency therefore covered most of the costs itself.
Streeck: PR concept “is not known to me”
The collaboration of the Bonn scientists with the agency, as both sides have stated, came about through a personal contact from Streeck with Storymachine co-owner Mronz. Upon request, Streeck now announced that he had spoken to Mronz for the first time on March 30 about “possible accompaniment”. It was always just about “that the agency wants to look over our shoulders at work in Heinsberg”. Storymachine “had no influence on the content or scientific work of the study at any time”.
On the other hand, Streeck did not know anything about the development of a PR concept with communication goals and messages that should be conveyed to the public, as he explained before the PR council’s complaint to Personal-Financial.com: “I am not aware of the communication strategy , and I did not take part in it. ”Even in April, Storymachine itself clearly answered the question of whether the scientist was involved in the development of the PR concept.