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While PIOs in different institutions may operate in different organizational environments, they can all offer the same kinds of services: as an editorial and media relations expert, as an institutional ambassador, as a teacher, and as a hard questioner.

As an Editorial and Media Relations Expert

The editorial and media relations services they can offer include

As an Institutional Ambassador

Besides offering media relations services, your PIO can be a useful institutional ambassador because he or she has frequent contact with the administrators whom you want to appreciate your work. For one thing, the PIO can advertise the importance of your research, in a way you might not feel comfortable doing.

"Scientists sometimes feel awkward saying 'I want to tell you about my cool new research,' but as communicators we can do the bells and whistles and jump up and down in proclaiming their work," says Cathy Yarbrough.

Your PIO can also convey to the administration the positions researchers are taking on important issues.

"There is often a big chasm that divides university leadership and the faculty," says Ohio State's Earle Holland. "We can represent that leadership before the faculty. We listen to the faculty in ways that they don't get listened to a lot of times. They have a familiarity and a comfort level with us. They will tell us what aggravates them; what they think is wrong. We can take that information back to our leadership and tell them what faculty are feeling."

For example, University of Wisconsin PIO Terry Devitt recalls a message he conveyed to the administration that significantly aided the university's research:

"At one point, we weren't devoting enough resources to animal facilities, and we were losing critical people. We were at risk of losing our accreditation, because things weren't being done as they should be. Somebody needed to take that message to the top, and who better than the PIO, who would have to clean up the mess if it were to become public."

PIOs can also link you to offices that can materially advance your research. Vanderbilt PIO David Salisbury recalls one such instance: a graduate student in the laboratory of chemist Sandra Rosenthal had created infinitesimal quantum dots that could be used to produce white light from LEDs—a holy grail of lighting technology. Rosenthal, who had been using the dots as biological markers, had not considered a lighting application until Salisbury did some digging—including contacting a fellow PIO at a national laboratory. He decided to do a news release emphasizing a lighting application.

"Before we began working on the release, Sandy had sent a patent disclosure to our tech transfer people, but they panned it, saying they didn't see anything there," says Salisbury. But when the release got broadly picked up and the researcher began receiving emails and phone calls from a number of companies, they suddenly got interested," he recalls. The advance ended up getting a Popular Mechanics 2006 Breakthrough Award.

"After the coverage died down, Sandy freely acknowledged that if it wasn't for our news and media relations all that never would have come about," says Salisbury. "It's sometimes the case that many researchers may be too close to their work to see broader applications that others, like a PIO, can, see," says Salisbury. "In this case, the lighting industry was just outside their frame of reference."

As an Educator

A PIO/journalist can also be an effective communication educator, for example showing how to develop clear research explanations, says Holland:

"We teach by example," he says. "When we get the response from a faculty member on a draft news release, they sometimes say 'You put it together in a way I wouldn't have done it, but it makes it so much clearer to do it that way.' That can open a conversation about, for example, why we might have chosen to leave out certain caveats that weren't needed."

More generally, PIOs can also teach about the nature of media, says Johns Hopkins' Joann Rodgers. For example, she tells the PIOs under her to use faculty complaints about inaccurate media coverage as "teachable moments:"

"I tell them to ask the faculty member what happened," she says. "Generally, he will not be able to think of a single instance of inaccurate coverage, or it was a repeat of something he heard. Sometimes, he will really have a story to tell, and the PIO can help him. Maybe the faculty member or the journalist did something wrong. The PIO can help the faculty member figure out how to make sure the problem doesn't happen again, or call the journalist to figure out the problem and fix it."

As a Hard Questioner

Finally, as a hard questioner a good PIO/journalist can confront you with those tough questions that you must answer if you are to preserve your reputation and advance your work.

"We are not stenographers," declares Rodgers. "We have to ask tough questions sometimes that scientists or administrators do not like to answer." Rodgers says such tough questions involve challenging "the wisdom of not telling people what they need to know to make an informed decision, or of any omission that is misleading to the public." Such hard questions can cover inadequate disclaimers about your work, not clarifying conflict of interest, and even that ethically dubious motive behind a breakfast that a Wall Street analyst invited you to with the national reporter, says Rodgers.

"It is about reputation management," she says. "You can't get people's attention if you don't have credibility, and the way you get credibility is to be open."

(Next: Get to Know Your PIO)
© 2010 by Dennis Meredith
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