Matt Shipman is a public information officer at North Carolina State University, where he writes about everything from forensic entomology to computer malware. He previously worked as a reporter and editor in the Washington, D.C. area for Inside EPA, Water Policy Report and Risk Policy Report, where he covered the nexus of science, politics and policy. He blogs about NC State research at The Abstract, and you can follow him on Twitter where he is @ShipLives.
Make sure you check the other posts in the series, Writing About Science, When You’re Not A Scientist and Social Media: Taking Science To The People.
Whether you’re a scientist or a science reporter, at some point you’ll probably have to deal with a public information officer (PIO). A good PIO, or flack, can make your job easier. A bad PIO can make you want to pull your hair out. So, what makes a good science PIO?
PIOs have been the subject of some discussion recently in the science community. It started earlier this month, during the ScienceOnline2012 conference at North Carolina State University in Raleigh (where I work). During discussions about the relationship between scientists and reporters, it came to light that many PIOs who write news releases about research findings do not run those releases by the relevant researchers to ensure their accuracy. This blew the minds of some reporters, and at least one flack (me).
In the days following the conference, the revelation that PIOs are not vetting news releases led to several prominent blog posts and related conversations through social media. Even science writers who were former PIOs wanted to know what was going on.
To advance the conversation, I want to lay out some guidelines for what I think scientists, science writers and PIOs should expect from each other.
Researchers, you should expect a good PIO to give you an opportunity to review any news releases about your research. I am a flack at a large university. I write about everything from forensic anthropology to chemical engineering. It would be foolish of me to presume I could write about such a variety of topics without making a mistake. Even PIOs who focus on specific research areas make mistakes, as humans are wont to do.
As a result, I always vet my release copy with the relevant researchers. In fact, everyone in my office does. Sometimes that means we have to significantly re-write releases, and sometimes it means we go through several iterations before everyone is happy. We are, after all, writing for a lay audience. So be it. If we botch something out of carelessness, it reflects poorly on the researchers, the research and the institution. From a selfish perspective, it also hurts our reputations with researchers and reporters. We can’t afford that.
What do PIOs need from researchers? Time. Ideally, researchers will tell a PIO about forthcoming papers or conference presentations at least a week or two in advance. This gives us the opportunity to pull together a good release and issue it in a timely way. A six-week-old paper is brand new in academic terms – it hasn’t even had time to penetrate the intellectual marketplace – but if you tell most reporters that a news item is six weeks old, their eyes will glaze over and you will have trouble waking them up. This may not be true for some science beat writers, but most science news stories these days are written by general assignment reporters, and they like their news to be new.
Researchers should also remember that a news release is not an abstract. It is not being written for an audience of your peers. News releases should be written in language that is accessible to a non-expert audience. And, when reviewing a draft release, please respond to your PIO as quickly as possible. If you don’t get around to reviewing a release for a few weeks, odds are good the release will never go out – it’s no longer timely.
In addition, researchers should know that, at some point, they may have to actually talk to a reporter. A good PIO will make sure the researcher is aware of this ahead of time, and will check to see who on the research team is most comfortable serving as a spokesperson. It’s usually the lead author, but that is not always the case. If you’re a researcher, and you do not want to talk to the press, tell your PIO before the release goes out. A news release is not a news story. It’s a summary that reporters can use to determine whether they want to write a news story. If the researcher won’t answer the phone, there’s no point in issuing the release in the first place.
What should reporters expect from a good PIO? Honesty. Don’t say something is the cure for cancer, unless it is actually the cure for cancer. Science is an iterative process, and even baby steps forward can be exciting and important. Exaggerating research findings is a surefire way to annoy reporters (and researchers).
What else should a good PIO do? Be responsive. If a reporter calls you, he or she is probably on deadline. Respond to media requests quickly. And if you can’t get the reporter what he or she wants, explain that as soon as possible so the reporter can begin figuring out how to move forward.
PIOs should also know who they’re pitching. If you pitch a story about beetles to a writer who covers astrophysics, you’re wasting everyone’s time. That said, every PIO makes an off-target pitch from time to time. If that happens, reporters, please tell the PIO you don’t care about that subject – but also tell the PIO what areas you do cover. If the PIO is any good, you will stop getting irrelevant pitches – and may even get a heads up about something you’re actually interested in.
Why do I care what people at other institutions do? One reason is because it is already difficult to get journalists and researchers to take PIOs seriously. We don’t need irresponsible behavior contributing to the problem. Another reason is that I care about science, and about communicating ideas (and context) accurately. It’s why I’m in this business (it sure isn’t for the money).
PIOs, and their employers, need to know that it is not okay to leave scientists out of the loop when we’re promoting their work. It undermines our credibility. It tells researchers we don’t care about their concerns. And it increases the likelihood that the very work we are trying to highlight will be misrepresented.