The PIO Forum

Reprinted with permission from NASW ScienceWriters, Fall 2006

by David Jarmul

In the realm of science communications – and in particular, research communications at American universities – it would be difficult to single out a person who has done more, or who has been more instrumental in the maturing of this field, than Duke University’s own Dennis Meredith.

Those aren’t my words. They’re from Ohio State’s Earle Holland, who says that “along with a few of his colleagues, Dennis guided this profession through its childhood, its adolescence, and now its coming of age. The fact that, where there were once a mere handful of science communicators and there are now hundreds spread across academe, is directly related to the model that Dennis represents to his peers.”

Earle was among several NASW members and others who wrote letters to mark Dennis’s recent retirement from Duke. Their words did more than offer a personal tribute; they also offered guidelines for other science PIOs who might aspire to be as successful and consequential as Dennis has been over the years.

For instance, Sandy Blakeslee of the New York Times highlighted one key attribute of a successful PIO in her letter to Dennis, namely an awareness of reporters’ interests and limited time.

“Science writers are bombarded by information, most of which can be deleted or tossed in the waste basket,” she wrote. “The detritus is staggering. Despite all efforts to convince them otherwise, many public information officers still send ‘news’ of promotions, campus ‘news,’ badly written press releases or story ideas on subjects completely uninteresting to you. Some are pests. They send regular reminders that they sent you something months ago and wonder if you are ‘still interested.’ Some are vaguely shmoozey, just ‘checking in’ to see what kinds of stories you might be looking for.

“Then there is Dennis Meredith. Every science writer I know will always take a phone call from Dennis or answer an e-mail immediately. Why? You know he has a good story or, more likely, a great story that is right up your alley. You know he won’t waste your time. You know he’s done his homework. You know he’s prepared his sources to talk to you.”

Earle made a similar point, saying what “set Dennis apart from others, to my mind, was the obvious respect he received from almost all of the key science reporters at the national level. While he clearly was a ‘PR person’ for his institution, reporters didn’t see that as an albatross … as they sometimes do. No, the respect Dennis – and his institutions – received was a direct reflection of reporters’ view of his professionalism. Not only did they know that he had the kind of ‘nose-for-news’ that they often found lacking in some of the PR folks they might meet, they also knew that he had an understanding of the science, the research, involved, and how it fit into a larger context.”

The letters made clear that an ability to “smell a good story” is only a starting point. Successful science PIOs also must be able to write clearly about the information they’re promoting to reporters or the public.

“Dennis is in part responsible for the impact our work has had in the scientific and lay public,” wrote Erich Jarvis, a Duke neurobiologist whose work has been profiled by NOVA, New York Times and others. “He has a great knack for presenting complicated scientific findings and ideas in simple terms, and doing so without losing accuracy or meaning. He also had a fascination with the brain, which made it a pleasure to speak with him about the science we do.”

Jim Keeley, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, made a similar point in his letter to Dennis. “One thing I’ve learned in this business of science writing is you don’t trust your homeobox genes, transcription factors, or zinc fingers to just anyone,” he wrote. “It takes a special kind of person to understand incredibly complex journal articles, negotiate the minefield of egos in big-time science, ask the incisive questions, and nail the story.”

The very best science PIOs write not only with clarity, but with grace. Cathy Clabby, science reporter for The News and Observer, in Raleigh, N.C., describes Dennis’s work as “poetry among the flood of self-promotion,” citing a Duke Magazine article in which he describes a biologist’s underwater explorations “surrounded by ‘ghosts,’ swirls of ethereal entities whose glimmerings tell him he is not alone in the see-forever cerulean waters. He is enveloped in a clear-as-glass menagerie of creatures that make the open ocean their home. They survive because they have evolved to be nearly invisible.”

Another attribute of Dennis’s success has been his consistent ability to look beyond his own pitches and stories – indeed, beyond his own institution – to the needs of scientists and journalists more broadly.

As Jeff Nesbit, head of NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs, wrote to Dennis, “Some people watch. Some people wait. Some people offer opinions, but don’t do much. And some people know when to watch, when to wait, when to opine – and when to ‘just do it.’ You belong to that last rarified group. The folks who create buzzwords call that ‘situational awareness.’ I call it leadership.

“No matter how busy, you made time to see the big picture and then help to modify it. As NSF sought to create a sustained collaboration with its PIOs, you were a key adviser and supporter – always thinking about what’s best for not only your own institution, but for hundreds of others too. Over years of collaboration, you worked closely with NSF’s public affairs office, led discussion groups, helped build consensus, gave your own thoughtful suggestions, and sometimes gave us ‘hard-copy’ too.”

Ginger Pinholster, director of the AAAS Office of Public Programs, described Dennis as “a great friend to EurekAlert!, and thus to science communications more broadly. His ideas, advice, and overall support have been an important part of EurekAlert!’s success.” In her letter to Dennis, Ginger recounted the “legend” by which he and Ginger’s predecessor, Nan Broadbent, “were in a pub or some similar establishment when they conceived of EurekAlert! The rest, as they say, is history.”

Dennis has contributed to the science journalism community in these and many other ways, such as by recently helping develop outreach systems for new electronic journals. Less visible has been his mentoring of young science writers from Duke and elsewhere.

“Writing about science for Dennis Meredith was the best work-study job on the planet,” wrote one of those students, Margaret Harris, who is now pursuing a doctorate in physics, in England. “Under his guidance, I interviewed a kaleidoscope of talented researchers in a wide variety of fields, from violin-playing lobsters (yes, really), and carbon nanotubes to devices for people with disabilities.

“The articles, however, were only half the fun. The other half was working with Dennis. Dennis is a top-notch editor, with a keen ear for a catchy phrase or well-worded explanation and a sharp sense of the ‘wow factor.’ He is also kind, generous, and patient – particularly when that same keen ear alerts him to a particularly clunky piece of prose. … He is welcome to spill red ink over my writing anytime.”

I feel the same way. Five years ago, when I was considering leaving the Washington, D.C., area to move to Duke, one of the main attractions was to work alongside Dennis, with whom I’d interacted on various science writing projects over the years. He proved to be even more talented (and yes, quirkier and funnier) than I’d imagined.

Dennis and his wife, Joni, recently left Durham for their mountain home in western North Carolina, where he will freelance – and undoubtedly continue serving science writers everywhere. To quote Jim Keeley, “In the backwoods of Purlear, North Carolina, they might refer to such a person as a ‘woodchipper of science writing.’ We’re relieved to hear that although he will officially retire from Duke, the old woodchipper will still roar to life on occasion to shred grand science ideas into sound-bite sized pieces understandable to the masses.”

When you next see Dennis at an NASW meeting, humor him as he shows off his latest goofy toy or slide show of his granddaughter. He’s earned your attention. As Jeff Nesbit wrote him, “Some people fade into retirement without leaving much of a wake. Not you. You leave behind a large wake: a better environment that will forever bear your personal imprint.”

David Jarmul, associate vice president for news and communications at Duke University, is a long-time NASW member.