Get to Know Your PIO
Researchers almost never take the initiative to get to know PIOs, even though they can be valuable partners in disseminating their research. As Duke communications director David Jarmul says,
I frankly find it both disappointing and even a little shocking that I don't get more calls or emails from researchers saying, "Hey, would you like to just come by sometime and have a cup of coffee, and I can show you what we are doing?" Even if nothing is breaking, I just like to know what researchers are up to.
Getting to know your PIO enables you to understand the strengths and limitations of the people and office that help link you to the public and to fellow scientists through professional media. So, perhaps invite your PIO for a laboratory tour and/or chat over lunch.
Such interaction, says Catherine Foster, former media relations director at Argonne National Laboratory, will "put a face on the research, help us understand why the work is important, and that way we can be better advocates with reporters and members of the public for what you are doing."
Your initial contacts represent only the first step in a long-term partnership between PIO and researcher, emphasizes Ohio State PIO Earle Holland:
I don't just care about the first story; I care about the twenty stories I am going to do during my career on that work. Once we establish that there is some substantive work there, then we can talk about possibilities, depending on what type of research it is, whether the science is good and interesting. Does it have that gee whiz effect? Is it about something like volcanoes or puppies that are 'magic' stories? Or, if it is something abstract or abstruse, I don't want to give false expectations.
Questions to Ask a PIO
In getting to know your PIO, here are some useful questions you can ask:
- What is your level of understanding of my research area? You can do some scouting to answer this question by checking the news office Web site to see the kinds and level of news releases your PIO has done. Also, look for a bio that indicates the PIO's experience and training level. And when you meet the PIO, ask about his or her understanding directly, perhaps phrasing the question diplomatically as "What information do you need about my work?"
- Where is your office in the organizational chart? This hierarchy may well influence whether your PIO is a sales rep or a PIO/journalist. If the office is under a vice president for communications, its culture is more likely to be journalistic. However, if the office is under marketing or development, the PIO may face more pressure to "sell" the institution. Such PIOs may find themselves not only writing news releases but promotional materials for donors. The hype language of such promos may tend to leak into news releases.
- How is the news office structured? The office may have a beat system, in which each PIO covers research in specific fields. Knowing what beats your PIO covers might give clues to how significantly the office views your work. For example, if your department is lumped into a grab bag of disparate areas on a generalist writer's beat, that writer is less likely to cover your work adequately.
- What are the office's news policies? News policies differ according to the type of institution. However, even the same types of institutions may have significant differences, sometimes even eccentric ones. For example, a major medical center's news policy once had a policy prohibiting revealing in news releases the animal species used in experiments. The releases could only refer mysteriously to a "laboratory model" used in the experiments. That news office was under the vice president for development, who feared alienating donors who opposed animal research. Other institutional policies might differ on whether journalists can contact researchers directly or must go through the news office; or whether journalists can visit laboratories freely or require an escort.
- What services does the office provide? Ask what services the office provides. Learn the procedure for using those services, what communications products you will receive, any costs, and the key contacts. For example, some news services produce only low-resolution Web videos using modest equipment, while others are organized to produce broadcast-quality video news packages.
Questions Not to Ask a PIO
There are also questions you should not ask your PIO, unless you enjoy aggravating people. Some examples:
- Will my story get a lot of media coverage? A PIO can only guess at the level of coverage of a story. On a slow news day, a run-of-the-mill release might garner the lead slot in a newspaper or Web site. In contrast, for no apparent reason, a dramatic research advance can also disappear down the media maw without a trace. Even the best PIOs admit their shortcomings in prediction. Says the University of Wisconsin's Terry Devitt, "When I try to forecast an outcome, I tend to fail miserably. We all have stories we thought were really good and would go like crazy and others that were kind of dull but that, when they did go out the door, spread like wildfire."
- Why did article X not mention my research? This is not a useful question, because any article on a given topic may not include many prominent researchers in the field. Even in-depth feature stories are limited in scope and size. They attempt to give only a brief overview of a topic from a limited viewpoint and thus include only a few researchers. Your PIO almost certainly could not have known about a given article beforehand, because reporters do not advertise their decision to do an article on a given subject beyond their editors. And the reporter's research for that article is limited and even somewhat serendipitous. Unless your PIO contacted every editor of every relevant publication during every publishing cycle, he or she could not know what articles are being planned. And even if the PIO attempted such an outlandish activity, editors would likely not share that information. What's more, the PIO who attempted such an exhaustive and annoying canvas would immediately be persona non grata in every editorial office. The most productive approach to gaining publicity, which PIO/journalists use, is to assiduously identify the best stories for the media and let editors know about them by producing high-quality news releases and other materials. Your PIO might also maintain contact with journalists by going to scientific meetings, where he or she can find out about reporters' interests and attempt to serve those interests with stories about your research and other work from your institution.
- Why isn't there a story in the newspaper about my exciting new grant (building, research gadget)? Money stories do not excite reporters, unless there is embezzlement involved. Nor do bricks and mortar or new research machines—unless the building falls down or the machine explodes. Reporters generally cover only the largest grants, buildings, or research instruments, and those stories are typically perfunctory. As excited as you are about your new grant, building, or gadget, it is not of great interest to the public. So, rather than harassing your PIO to gain news coverage for a grant or building, suggest feature stories on the research funded by such grants or housed in a new building. These stories can reach important audiences by appearing in internal publications and Web sites. And they might even prompt a reporter to do a feature.
- Somebody told me at a party last night that they hadn't heard about my latest research. Why isn't the word getting out? Science communicator Rick Borchelt recalls the frustration of such questions when he worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory: "I had done a lot of really good data analysis on who was receiving our material and what kind of an impact it was having," he says. "We even did focus groups among some of our key stakeholders. Then our director would go to a cocktail party in the community and some wife of a doctor in the community would say 'I never heard of what Oak Ridge is doing.' Immediately he would ask us to completely change our whole communication focus. It's amazing that scientists whose lives are driven by data, even when they are given hard facts about the impact of science communication, prefer to listen to cocktail chatter."
(Next: How to Help Your PIO)
© 2010 by Dennis Meredith
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