Thou Shalt Not: The Science PIO Commandments

25 March 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

If you're violating these commandments, you should stop. (Photo credit: ColinBroug/stock.xchng)

Public information officers (PIOs) often have a bad reputation among reporters – and not without reason. Bad PIOs can be annoying, misleading, frustrating and whatever the opposite of helpful is.

When I made the move from being a reporter to being a PIO, I made a list of commandments for myself. Some of these things are specific to PIOs who work on science-related issues, but most apply to everyone in the business. If some sound familiar, it’s because I’ve mentioned a few of these at some point or another over the course of previous posts.

Do Not Overstate Findings

When you are writing about research findings, you should explain them. You should place them in context. You should not blow them out of proportion or overestimate the researcher’s findings until they have little relation to reality. Don’t say there will be flying cars or a cure for cancer unless the researcher has built a flying car or developed the cure for cancer (and if it is the cure for cancer, tell us precisely which form of cancer has been cured).

You may be tempted to sex things up a little bit in order to get people’s attention. This will backfire, because reporters will not be happy if they discover that the research is not what you said it was. Honesty really is the best policy.

Respond Promptly

You have a million things to do and are scrambling to get those things accomplished. So are reporters – and they’re on deadline. If you get a phone call or an email from a reporter, you should respond as quickly as possible. Reporters notice when they get a prompt response, and they appreciate it. Reporters also notice when it takes forever for a PIO to get back to them. They do not like that.

And remember, if you don’t have what the reporter wants, respond right away and tell him (or her) that. At least they won’t be wondering if you can provide a missing piece of the story – and they can start looking for that piece somewhere else.

Help Other Institutions (and Don’t Badmouth Them)

This is how reporters feel when you block access to researchers. (Photo credit: catalin82/stock.xchng)

When a reporter contacts you looking for an expert, try to help. If your employer doesn’t have a relevant expert, send them someplace else.

I work for North Carolina State University, which does not have a law school or a medical school (for humans, anyway – if you’re an elephant, a sea turtle or a dog, we’ve got you covered). When reporters contact me with questions best suited to law or medical professors, I always refer them to our neighbors at Duke or UNC at Chapel Hill. This is good for business in two ways. First, it helps the reporter find the source he or she is looking for – even though that source isn’t at your institution. Reporters appreciate this, and will remember it. Second, it fosters good relationships with other institutions – which might be able to return the favor at some point.

Do not insult or put down other institutions. Kind words can help you. Being a jerk never pays off.

Do Not Block Access to Researchers

Reporters want to talk to whoever did the research. They do not want to talk to you. It is your job to facilitate access to the researchers. I usually give reporters the direct contact information for the relevant researchers, so they do not need to call me or interact with me in any way if they don’t want to. The easier I make their job, the more likely it is that they’ll write about the research. And that is what’s important. Also, it makes it more likely that they’ll be willing to read my emails in the future.

I know that not all institutions allow direct access to the researchers. I feel fortunate to work at an institution that does.

Fact-Check Your Release/Blog Post with the Researchers

If you are writing a news release or blog post about research findings, you should run a draft of the release or post by the relevant researchers – or at least the lead researcher. Reporters do not want to be misled because you got your facts wrong. And researchers do not want their work misrepresented in public. Any mistakes you make may be unintentional, but that will not be very comforting if reporters and researchers think you’ve been stupid (at best) or disingenuous (at worst).

Be Able to Provide the Paper

You might be the greatest news release writer in the history of news release writers, and you might do a wonderful job of summing up the key findings in a new journal article, but reporters are not going to take your word for it. They will want to see the paper.

If the paper is open access, put a hyperlink to the journal article in your release or blog post so that readers can go directly there if they want to. If the paper is not open access, put the hyperlink in anyway. Some reporters may have a relevant subscription, as will many researchers or other parties who are interested in the release. But always make sure you have a PDF of the paper available that you can send to interested reporters.

Okay, those are my rules. What did I miss? Please leave any proposed new commandments in the comments.


5 Responses to “Thou Shalt Not: The Science PIO Commandments”

  1. Karl Leif Bates Reply | Permalink

    The penultimate point -- fact-checking -- is more than a suggestion for university PIOs. Now that our stuff gets cloned by a half-dozen or more mindless newsbots, it's more important than ever that the stories we put out are checked by members of the research team. Whether journalists will admit it or not, our version also tends to set the tone for how to interpret the news value of a finding, so it's important we set it in a way the researchers can live with. See point one. The PIs who scare me are the ones who answer ten minutes later "Looks great," without any changes!
    On your final point: DOI number is a must-have now for finding the paper, not links. Any librarian can help a person from there. And grant-numbers are very nice to have too -- they get your release into federal databases of where the money went.

  2. Cynthia G. Reply | Permalink

    Another one: Don't ask to be present during the journalist/scientist communication, whether over the phone or in person. The journalist will think you trust neither him/her nor the scientist in question to do their respective jobs. While both may be true, best to quell that feeling. Otherwise, you leave the journalist with the sense that - at the least - the scientist will feel more awkward in your presence, which will prevent him or her from speaking freely.

  3. Kara Gavin Reply | Permalink

    Have a visual that fits the story! Even if it's stock art bought from a website (don't steal...)

    Help the researchers practice giving interviews - especially if it's their first time out. Give them this link to a great site created by AAAS: http://communicatingscience.aaas.org/

    If your institution allows it, put a Creative Commons notice on everything you write, so that it can be freely used/shared. Remember that what you post online can travel far and wide.

    Be ready for patient inquiries that might come in on anything - even the most basic science. Patients, especially those with diseases that have few options, will grasp at any new finding. Be explicit in what you write about the distance the research will have to travel before it can be applied to any patient/trial participant. Equip the scientist/doctor, his/her administrative staff, any clinic or call center where she/he practices, and even the lab staff with the press release and talking points (or a pre-written message) that they can deploy if any patients get through to them on the phone or email.

    And last but not least, tell the story yourself in every channel you can think of. Institutional newsletters, alumni/donor publications, social media channels, the department/center website, etc. Get your own content out there even if no reporter deigns to pick up on it!

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