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A Sales Rep or a PIO/Journalist?

PIOs come in two basic models—the sales rep PIO and the PIO/journalist—although any particular PIO might have characteristics of both. The PIO/journalist is far more effective and credible than the sales rep PIO; so understanding the difference between the two is important because it affects the credibility of your research communication to the media and your other audiences.

A sales rep PIO, like other salesmen, hawks his or her product—your research—with little consideration of its true substance or appropriate audiences. The sales rep PIO usually concentrates more on pitching stories indiscriminately to media and less on thoroughly understanding and explaining your research and targeting communications. A sales rep's news releases tend to be essentially advertisements, peppered with subjective terms like "breakthrough" and "major discovery." As a result, they have less credibility with all your audiences, and not just the media.

The sales rep also believes that the media are by far the most important, if not the only, targets for news releases. However, as is discussed in chapter 2 of Explaining Research, a news release has a multitude of uses—as internal communications, as statements of record, as alerts to other researchers, and so on. Sometimes media are really secondary targets of news releases.

You will recognize when a sales rep PIO enters your laboratory when he or she shows only a rudimentary knowledge of your research. The sales rep PIO will talk more about the media pitches for your story than the substance of your work. He or she will talk of "placing" stories, as if salesmanship rather than the quality of the news generates media coverage. You might also hear the thud of name-dropping, when the sales rep talks about top reporters or major media he or she will target.

Sales rep PIOs are notorious for spamming reporters with news releases that do not interest them, says New York Times science writer Sandra Blakeslee:

Science writers are bombarded by information, most of which can be deleted or tossed in the waste basket. 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.

Such spamming, in fact, reduces the chances that legitimate stories from your institution will be seen by journalists.

The sales rep PIO often fails to realistically assess the significance of research from his or her institution, pitching it relentlessly to media regardless of its importance or even legitimacy.

Tom Siegfried, former editor of Science News and long-time newspaper journalist, recalls how sales rep PIOs from one unnamed university "notoriously, repeatedly would complain to higher-ups in the newspaper that coverage wasn't what they expected it to be . . . from not having it on the front page when it should have been, to not putting three different titles for a researcher in the story [who has] multiple affiliations." Such harassment is guaranteed to alienate not only science journalists, but their editors.

Sales rep PIOs love the telephone. They especially aggravate reporters by telephoning them to pitch stories or to ask whether the reporter has received a release. Most journalists intensely dislike such calls, unless they are about a truly important, breaking story that the journalist might otherwise miss. They prefer that PIOs selectively email them releases that are reliably significant and well-written, so they know that such releases are worth reading.

So, you know you are working with a sales rep PIO if he or she boasts of extensively phone-pitching your release or widely distributing a routine release on your grant or promotion.

Unfortunately, media-naïve administrators tend to find sales rep PIOs appealing, because of their aggressive, indiscriminate pitching. The administrators perceive sales reps as effective and dynamic, whereas journalists pejoratively dub them "flacks."

In contrast, says UC San Diego PIO Kim McDonald, the PIO/journalist--rather than being a pitchman for the institution--aims

. . . to be more of a resource for the journalists and let them make their own conclusions about the stature of your institution, not shove it down their throats by saying "Look how great we are; we have done this and this." If you act like a reporter within your institution, you understand exactly what is going on and you know the kinds of stories that would interest news media. Then you can become more effective long-term.

A PIO/journalist concentrates on the substance of your research. He or she will show up in your laboratory having studied the background material on your work, formulated cogent questions, and with plans to do a comprehensive story that fulfills all the communications objectives of a news release.

The best PIO/journalists will have a substantive general knowledge of the fields he or she covers. So, while a PIO/journalist might ask you to explain a particular technical point about your work, he or she will know the basics of your field.

However, a PIO/journalist will remain "strategically dumb," says Catherine Foster, formerly media relations manager at the Argonne National Laboratory. That is, the PIO/journalist will ask leading questions aimed at eliciting the most effective lay-level explanation of your work.

"If you keep pushing scientists to answer, 'What does that mean?' 'How do you know?' you do get a better story," says Foster.

A PIO/journalist will skillfully manage an interview to use your time efficiently and to get you talking, says Johns Hopkins PIO Joann Rodgers, a veteran journalist:

I never walk into the company of a scientist like the high school kid who calls up the newspaper reporter and says "I have to do a term paper on X. Can you tell me everything you know about that?" I always have a purpose, I tell them what I am after, and I have a hypothesis. Scientists like hypotheses. As a journalist, I learned that even if my hypothesis is dead wrong, it gets the conversation started.

Besides knowing your work, a PIO/journalist understands the work of the other researchers in his or her institution and how it fits into the field. Such knowledge gives the PIO/journalist an authority with media that pays off. For example, San Francisco Chronicle science editor David Perlman cites UC Berkeley's Robert Sanders as an example of a savvy PIO/journalist:

If I call up Bob and ask who I should talk to about space or any other topic, and if he tells me who I should talk to, I damn well talk to them.

Certainly, a good PIO/journalist will have a touch of the sales rep. He or she will develop a strategy to pitch your story to reporters, but in a realistic, professional way.

"They know what really makes a story for either general reporters or any specific reporter with whom they are engaged in trying to peddle a story," says Perlman. "They know the particular reporters and what their interests are. If they do know that there is a major breakthrough for the year, then they need to know how not to oversell it, but to let you know that this a lot more important than you may think." For example, Perlman cites University of Colorado's Jim Scott as a PIO/journalist who knows how to pitch.

Maybe a couple of times a month he will call me because they have a press release that is going to be emailed to me, and I might be interested in it. He never once [called] me about a press release that isn't a story. . . . He is impeccable that way.

What's more, a good PIO/journalist keeps track of the hottest media topics of the moment.

"Anybody who has a good yarn that requires the use of the word 'evolution,' I'll fall for it every time," says Perlman. "That is because it is a cause now—the woeful problem of teaching evolution in schools with the rise of intelligent design and creationists."

A final hallmark of a PIO/journalist is membership in the National Association of Science Writers or the American Medical Writers Association. To encourage PIO/journalism, those associations publish newsletters and organize conferences that promulgate good communications practices.

(Next: PIOs in Different Institutions Face Different Issues)

© 2010 by Dennis Meredith
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