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PIOs in Different Institutions Face Different Issues
All PIO/journalists share the same professionalism. However, they may function differently depending on the type of institution they are in—universities, national laboratories, government agencies, or corporations. Some examples of those differences:
PIOs at universities and at academic-type institutions such as NIH typically have more latitude to cover research than do those at the national laboratories or corporations. They can usually choose the people and stories based on their significance and interest to audiences. This basic freedom arises in part because, although university PIOs answer to their vice presidents, those vice presidents ultimately answer to the faculty.
However, university PIOs sometimes face political pressures to concentrate on a particular research program, department, school, or laboratory because the administration decides it needs to be covered. A research program might be at a critical funding juncture. Or an administrator might want coverage of a school or department to mollify a dean or department chair who complains of neglect.
PIOs in medical centers, compared to their university counterparts, operate under more formal restrictions. For one thing, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) severely restricts public disclosure of information about patients. And in communicating their animal research, medical centers must take into account the threat of destructive actions by animal rights extremists. Thus, medical centers have rigorous policies governing how animal research can be publicized.
PIOs at the federal laboratories work within a more complex bureaucracy than do those at universities. For example, news releases from federal laboratories must usually be approved up a chain of command all the way to the national-level administration. Catherine Foster recalls the approval situation at Argonne National Laboratory, where she was media relations manager:
"Argonne is under the DOE Office of Science, but if we had a research project funded by the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, also part of the DOE, we had to get approval from both offices for a release."
An adept federal laboratory PIO/journalist can navigate such political mazes, in order to do justice to good research. So, if your PIO is sympathetic to your cause, strategize with him or her about the best way to work the system to communicate your research.
Bureaucratic interference with a government PIO's function can do more damage than simply complicating news release approval. For example, National Public Radio science reporter Joe Palca recalls when the Reagan administration instituted a stunningly restrictive rule on press contacts:
"In the mid-80s, the Reagan administration had put in a policy that said no NIH scientist could talk to the national media without approval, not from NIH but from HHS headquarters," recalls Palca. NIH PIO Ann Thomas "was apoplectic, because in the world we work in, you pick up the phone and you talk with the researcher," he says. Thomas, considered a consummate professional, did the best she could to lessen the rule's impact.
"She admitted it was a completely indefensible policy and they would pass through requests as quickly as possible. She said 'This is the way things are right now, and we are frustrated. This is a bad time for us but this is the policy." That candor and display of journalistic understanding ultimately worked in NIH's favor, says Palca. "We said, 'God bless you,' and in my opinion she won all the credibility she needed at that moment."
In some cases, federal laboratory PIOs will take significant risks to buck such interference. Foster recalls when a DOE press secretary instituted a rule requiring media calls to any DOE laboratory to be cleared through her, a major headache considering the number of laboratories and the volume of calls:
We all ignored it, and she didn't like it, but we took the mindset that we will be here after you are gone. Our relationships with the reporters with whom we work with are more important to us than whatever power you have right now. That was a very risky attitude to take but it was one we had to take and fortunately we took it unanimously.
PIOs at many government agencies in Washington, D.C. work within an even more restrictive communications environment. They are often required to clear all media requests for interviews up a sometimes torturous and politicized chain of command. They typically sit in on media interviews—an unusual practice at universities. And they work under policies that can change with each change in leadership.
Leah Young is a veteran journalist and government PIO, whose career included extensive service at the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA). She recalls the political complexities of government agencies:
"A PIO or a scientist coming into an agency really has to know what he is going to be allowed to say—whether he is going to be able to speak his mind within normal limits, or whether he will be tightly controlled."
Government agencies may be staffed with politically-appointed PIOs who have little or no journalistic experience, says Young. Thus, scientists in such agencies should develop their own media relations skills.
Political-appointee PIOs may unfortunately promulgate a cult of personality around the director who appointed them—sometimes to the detriment of the agency. For example, the PIO may try to sell journalists on interviewing the agency director on a story, even when researchers are the real experts on the topic. Young recalls one such instance, when SAMSHA was working with HBO on a series on drug abuse:
"My boss insisted that they were only going to talk to the administrator, not the head of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, who was an M.D., J.D., M.P.H., and really knew his stuff on treatment."
However, because the director did not contribute any significant insights, his interview was cut from the documentary, which instead featured experts from other federal drug abuse research and treatment agencies.
"So we totally missed the opportunity, because there was this determination that they should only interview the administrator," says Young.
Such political interference with media relations can mean more than lost media opportunities. It can also block the flow of critical information to the public. Christopher Jensen of the New York Times reported an egregious example of such interference at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2007. NHTSA administrator Nicole R. Nason, a political appointee, decreed that without special permission NHTSA officials were forbidden to provide information to reporters, except on a background basis. As a result of this stricture, Jensen was not allowed to talk to an NHTSA safety official on the record. In fact, Jensen was told that, instead, he could interview only Nason on the record.
"I declined, failing to see how her appointment as administrator—she was trained as a lawyer—made her an expert in that subject," wrote Jensen.
"The agency's new policy effectively means that some of the world's top safety researchers are no longer allowed to talk to reporters or to be freely quoted about automotive safety issues that affect pretty much everybody," he wrote.
Another notorious example of such political interference was the efforts of NASA's public affairs office under the George W. Bush administration to distort and suppress scientific information on global warming. An investigation by NASA's inspector general's office found that the public affairs office suppressed news releases on global warming and limited the media access of prominent climatologist James Hansen.
The NASA inspector general's office's report concluded that "Our investigation found that during the fall of 2004 through early 2006, the NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public through those particular media...."
Despite such political roadblocks, says Young, PIO/journalists at government agencies are nevertheless motivated to help the media, both for the good of their own agency and for the good of the public.
"It is important, especially for agencies that are not well known, to get the name of your organization out, to give taxpayers a reason to want to fund you. Also, many times when I was at SAMSHA, the reporter calling me would be the crime reporter, and not the health reporter. To me, it was extremely important for that reporter to understand that substance abuse in itself is not criminal behavior; it is a disease. And it is a mission at SAMSHA to get that across, because preventing the spread of substance abuse can be most effective if it is treated as a public health issue. And to get that across, the people who are able to speak to the press have to be the experts."
Ideally, PIOs at corporations are deeply integrated into the business goals of the company, says Seema Kumar, vice president of global R&D communications at Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research and Development.
"What I find truly fascinating about the corporate environment is how communications objectives are driven by the strategic objectives of the organization," she says of corporate communications. Such an orientation profoundly affects how PIOs communicate, she says.
"Science communications within the pharmaceutical industry is more focused and lower volume than the science communications that is done in academe," says Kumar, whose experience has included work at newspapers, universities, government, and research institutes. In contrast to academe or government, where all published research results and advances are communicated, science communications in the corporate environment focuses on research that is translational, and aligned with the corporate strategy and goals.
"For example, in the early discovery phase of drug research, more can be openly discussed," she says. "But as the drug progresses through early and late development, we have to be careful with how much information we can disclose due to business considerations, such as the protection of intellectual property and competitive information, and regulatory restrictions on claims we can make, or market disclosure requirements. Also, by nature, research and development pipelines are capricious—compounds fall in and out of the pipeline, and you are accountable for any expectations you set about a compound's promise, however early. You don't want to over-promise and under-deliver."
Additionally, "the pharmaceutical industry is highly regulated, and we have to stay within certain parameters. Although in academia, we could speculate and predict what a basic science discovery or a new finding on a compound could mean for a particular disease, we cannot make unsubstantiated claims in the corporate environment, and we have to calibrate anything new we say against past information we have shared with reporters, analysts, investors, and the public."
Even with such strategic restrictions, an effective corporate PIO/journalist knows how to highlight the company's research, says Kumar: "In R&D communications, we are less likely to tell stories about the 'gene of the week,' and more likely to tell stories about trends. We may tell stories about whether personalized medicine is hype or hope; about the changing landscape of clinical trials; or about scientific innovation taking place in emerging regions."
Corporate PIOs provide their researchers more substantial communications guidance and support than is usual in universities or federal laboratories, says Kumar. For example, she says, it is not enough for a corporate researcher to know just how to explain complex science in understandable terms or how to handle tough questions. "That is necessary, but not sufficient," says Kumar. "Corporate researchers must also know how to manage the sensitive questions about related topics such as pricing, cost, reimbursement, and policy, for example." And, to ensure the researchers are prepared, corporate PIOs provide more substantial media training and speaker training, to help researchers cope with the controversies they are likely to encounter, especially in the pharmaceutical industry.
"The pharmaceutical industry has faced many challenges over the years; the science is often very complex, the timelines are long, and there are multiple regulatory restrictions about what is communicated when and how." Thus, says Kumar, corporate media training "has to do with ensuring that what a researcher says about his or her work is characterized correctly, that statements are appropriately balanced, that he or she is able to talk around regulatory and legal restrictions without sounding evasive, and that the researcher is prepared for questions about the benefit-risk ratio, pricing, access, or the safety and side effects of compounds."
Importantly, says Kumar, corporate PIOs help researchers with executive coaching on internal as well as external communications: "Carefully considered internal communication can enhance employee morale, maintain motivation among researchers, and promote the internal transparency that is critical to problem solving. When you have an organization of 8,000 people, you need to ensure that all employees feel committed to the overall mission and vision, and that they are all moving in the same direction." This is particularly important in the R&D world, says Kumar, because scientists typically "are not the type to 'toe the party line' and you need not only to win their hearts but their minds. You have to articulate a compelling strategy for what we want to accomplish, and let the scientists figure out the best scientific way to meet that strategy."
She says that ensuring that there is an environment that encourages scientific creativity and innovation, while channeling that creativity to an overall grand challenge—like curing cancer, or AIDS—that every scientist can commit to is important. "This is where internal communications comes into play, and it can be powerful."
Corporate PIOs also must work within a more stringent legal and regulatory framework than do academic and government PIOs. They must vet all communications through legal and regulatory review processes and balance the requirement to address issues of intellectual property and federal regulations with the need to produce a journalistic-quality news release.
Nevertheless, emphasizes former Science News editor Tom Siegfried, experienced corporate PIO/journalists can be just as valuable to reporters as are those in universities or federal laboratories:
"They are people who know the field; they know the journalists; they know what is helpful," he says. However, Siegfried warns against the corporate practice of short-term jobs for PIOs:
Some corporations view the public information job as kind of a rotating job that they move people through as a part of their training. And it is not an illegitimate management technique. You want your upper executives to be people who have had different roles in the company so they can understand the company.
But if the PR person with the corporation you are dealing with is there for a year-and-a-half, and then they move somebody else into the job, you have to start from zero developing that relationship of trust and their knowing what your needs are. Corporations that have PIOs who have been there long-term enable you to develop a relationship in which you always know you can get needed information.