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How to Help Your PIO

Your relationship with your PIO is a two-way street—a broad highway, one might hope. Your PIO can provide you invaluable services, but he or she also needs help from you. Fortunately, that help is cheap in both your resources and time. Your PIO needs only the information to do the job, a good working relationship, and your advocacy.

First, here are your PIO's information needs:

Following the above guidelines will get you off to an excellent start with your PIO. Beyond that start, here are tips for forging an effective working relationship:

Make Hard News Releases Easy

"Hard news" releases are those that announce research findings published in a journal or delivered at a meeting. To produce an effective hard news release, your PIO needs a productive interview, an efficient approval process, and a well-targeted distribution. The best preparation for these is to read the relevant chapters in Explaining Research—chapter 23 on media interviews, chapters 9 and 10 on news releases, and chapter 11 on news release distribution. Here are some other steps you can take to prepare for your collaboration with your PIO:

Providing clear lay-level explanations and analogies during the interview will be particularly important. You may, in fact, have to take the lead in supplying such components, because PIOs are sometimes diffident, says Johns Hopkins' Joann Rodgers:

Some PIOs have the perception that science is very serious stuff, and therefore explanations have to be complex, difficult, arcane. They often self-censor because their perception is that they have to be as eggheaded as the scientist, or else they won't be respected.

Veteran PIOs also can sometimes be too immersed in a particular field, and lose track of the need to keep explanations at a lay level. Research communicator Cathy Yarbrough, while working at the American Heart Association, had this "inside-baseball" problem with long-time staffers. She says

One of the biggest challenges I had was with communications staff who knew 'too much.' Especially those who had a lot of experience on the job; they didn't understand what lay people didn't know. They would write releases that referred to 'cardiac events,' without defining what a cardiac event was. I would joke with them: 'What is a cardiac event? Is it falling in love? Is it the heart association charity ball? The Heart Association marathon race?'

After the interview, the PIO will write a draft release for your approval. Some tips on making that process effective:

Bring the Feature Story to Life

A feature story about your work offers an engaging inside look that a news release cannot give. Even if a feature is only for "internal" publications and not for release to external media, it could be widely read by administrators, donors, students, and other important audiences. Also, it will likely be seen by journalists. Just as there is no such thing as an "internal" news release, there is no such thing as an internal publication—especially given the reach of the Web.

You can help an in-house writer craft a good feature by providing human interest stories, "you-are-there" descriptions, conceptual background, and potential applications of your work.

So, in your interview offer personal background, anecdotes, opinion, and other information that will bring a feature to life. Offer the writer laboratory tours, field trips, and even participation in experiments—assuming the experiments do not involve organ transplantation or high-voltage electricity. For example, when I gathered information for in-house articles, researchers gave me the opportunity to witness the launch of a large sounding rocket, to helicopter over the giant Arecibo radio dish in Puerto Rico, to have my brain waves measured, and to capture bats in a Costa Rican rain forest. For more detail on the journalistic elements of a good feature story, see chapter 16 of Explaining Research.

Understand the Difference Between Media Relations and Public Relations

Knowing the distinction between media relations and public relations can give you a more realistic approach to working with your PIO. Media relations pertains to seeking coverage in newspapers, magazines, Web sites, and other outlets. However, public relations encompasses a broader spectrum of communications with your audiences, of which media relations is only one component. This distinction is important, because it implies that your communications should involve more than just getting stories in the New York Times or any other media outlet.

You might have made a "ewwww!" face when you read the term "public relations," because that term does carry a disreputable connotation. However, you should think of public relations, not as slimy salesmanship, but in its professional sense as a set of strategies for communicating your research and its importance to all your audiences.

While your PIO will be versed in media relations, he or she is not a "public relations" person. Your institution does employ public relations people who oversee the broader range of communications. However, they will not likely be at your disposal for your research communications. You are responsible for your own public relations strategy, and you do need a broader strategy than just one of media relations. Do not fall into the trap that public relations consultant Lynne Friedmann describes in some short-sighted clients:

"They do not understand that media relations is a tactic of public relations; that it is more than publicity. Their perspective is short-term, and they're looking for the big media score." Rather, as is discussed in Explaining Research, you should plan a long-term strategy for communicating your work in a credible way to all interested audiences.

Take No for an Answer

Your PIO will quite often answer "yes" when you ask for a news release or other communication. But the answer may sometimes be "no," and for good reason. For one thing, your story might not be ripe for publicity.

"We will only do a release if the work has been through some level of peer review, made it to a plenary session at a national meeting, published in a journal, or about to be published in a journal," says Don Gibbons, formerly at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. "Sometimes, though, we get cases in which people want publicity when their work is at a very early stage. For example, surgeons are starting a trial, and they want more referrals. In such cases, publicity is usually not appropriate."

Also, your work—albeit excellent and scientifically significant—might be too technical or narrow for the broader audience that a PIO seeks to reach.

"People may be doing just absolutely magnificent research, but you can't understand it, you can't translate it," says Ohio State's Earle Holland. "Even research in molecular biology and cancer has gotten to the point that, while it is incredibly important, you have to understand three chapters of a textbook before you can really understand its significance."

In cases where your work is just not appropriate for lay-level communication, you will be responsible for producing the articles, Web content, and other materials for reaching important technical and professional audiences.

Finally, your PIO might say no because of the considerable demands of serving the communications needs of a multitude of researchers. In such cases, your best recourse is to make it as easy as possible for the PIO to say yes—by following the guidelines for effectively working with your PIO discussed in this guide. Also, a yes is more likely if you make the PIO's life easier by developing your own quality presentations, Web site, multimedia, and other content.

Advocate for Your PIO

With only modest effort, you can greatly help your PIO and your communication office do their jobs by advocating for them. Such advocacy not only helps your own work, but raises all the "institutional boats"—advancing the mission of your university, corporation, or government laboratory or agency. Here are some of the things you can do:

Build Communications into Your Budget

When planning your budget—whether for a specific project or your laboratory, department, or center—include money for communications, says Duke's David Jarmul.

"The increasingly multimedia nature of science journalism is a big challenge for universities and scientists," he says, "It puts tremendous pressure on us from a budgetary and personnel standpoint. It costs a lot of money to produce animation, slick multimedia features, and a professional Web site. And the bar is set high, in that everybody wants their Web site to look like National Geographic's.

"There is a reason why large corporations spend a good percentage of their budget on communications and marketing," says Jarmul. "I am not saying that a university should become Proctor and Gamble selling soap, but any communications effort is going to be less effective if it's treated as an afterthought."

Commend Your PIO

If your PIO produces a great news release, feature story, or research animation, drop him or her a note of thanks. Copy that note to appropriate colleagues and administrators. Such kudos will help your PIO get more stories from your colleagues, and perhaps more resources from administrators. The resulting communications enhancement will benefit you, your colleagues, and your institution.

Involve PIOs in Administrative Meetings

Give your communications experts a seat at the management table for any significant decision. All such decisions have a communications component—from building a new laboratory to coping with a research scandal. The PIO can offer not only communications advice, but a useful independent view of the issue. And the experience will educate the PIO.

For example, when the University of Wisconsin planned its stem cell research initiative, the researchers invited PIO Terry Devitt to participate.

"They knew that it was controversial, and in anticipation I sat in on meetings of the bioethics committee," he says. "I could hear them ask the key questions about research on human subjects and conflict of interest."

As a PIO at Novartis, Cathy Yarbrough found that participating in managerial meetings enabled her to communicate more effectively about the company's products.

"Each drug has its own team and as a communications person I was on multiple teams. As such, I learned about the marketing plans, the medical concerns, and other important issues about each drug first-hand," she says.

Propose Communication Training

Communication training teaches you to explain your research clearly not only in media interviews, but in other public venues. By proposing that your group hold such training sessions, you do a favor to yourself, your colleagues, and your PIO. The sessions need not take much time. For example, the Duke News Service hosts periodic half-day training sessions for faculty, covering such topics as how to give a TV interview or write an op-ed. The sessions are conducted by staff PIOs, and they provide faculty useful communications skills. They also introduce researchers to the communicators who can help them with news releases, features, and other communications.

Even simpler, invite your PIO to a laboratory or departmental meeting to talk about the communications process and answer questions. Ask your communicators to participate in new-researcher orientation. For example, at HHMI's orientation for new investigators, Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs Avice Meehan briefs the researchers on communications issues. She explains the communications office activities and how researchers can work most effectively with its PIOs to reach important audiences with their research news. Thus, even though HHMI's investigators are spread in universities throughout the country, they are plugged into the institute's communications system from the beginning of their tenure as investigators.

Embed Your PIO

Universities and other institutions have an unfortunate habit of isolating PIOs in administrative buildings or even in off-campus offices. For example, when I worked at Cornell, the news office operated out of a strip mall two miles from campus—next to a real estate office and a Dunkin' Donuts.

Encourage administrators to house your PIO and news office near faculty offices and laboratories. Or, at least provide your PIO an office as a base of operations in your laboratory building. UC San Diego PIO Kim McDonald finds that his office in the natural sciences building greatly aids interaction with researchers:

I see the scientists in the hall, in the elevator, at lunch, and when I'm walking across campus. I can ask them what they're working on. It is like being a police reporter and working out of the police station. It is a much more effective way for me to get information. When I do need to contact somebody, if they are not answering their phone I can hunt them down. Having me on campus is a constant reminder for them that "Oh yeah, I have to tell Kim about this paper that I just submitted because I think it is interesting." My constant presence reminds them what I am here to do, which is necessary because their focus is to publish, get tenure, teach classes.

Also, consider embedding your PIO in field trips and expeditions, perhaps as an expedition communications officer. Such embedment can have considerable advantages, because a PIO can do a much better job than you of writing compelling descriptions of the experience and producing quality visuals and audio.

For example, in 1999 and 2000, Duke science writer Monte Basgall was embedded in deep-sea expeditions to the Pacific Hess Deep and Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The Pacific Hess Deep is a Grand-Canyon-sized underwater chasm; and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is one of the world's largest undersea mountain ranges.

On those expeditions, Basgall chronicled the explorations in real time for their Web sites and wrote news releases and magazine articles on the expeditions and their findings. In fact, he helped the Hess Deep expedition make a major news splash (pun intended), when the researchers discovered a "Lost City" of gigantic undersea spires formed from the minerals spewed from hydrothermal vents. Basgall wrote a news release aboard the ship that NSF and the expedition issued, and the release gained international coverage.

As another example, while at Michigan State University PIO Sue Nichols took part in expeditions to China and Rwanda. On the China expedition, she and a videographer accompanied researcher Jianguo Liu on a trip to the panda habitat in the Wolong Nature Reserve. She recounted the expedition's communications payoff in an article in the National Association of Science Writers ScienceWriters newsletter:

The results: seven online dispatches from the field that we also featured on NSF's home page, some 900 photo images, 10 hours of professional video, and a Web site accessible to a wide audience that carried the message that science is fascinating, fun, and compelling. Both MSU and NSF still extensively use the materials, as have schools, journalists, and others.

Nichols journeyed to Rwanda to cover the university's effort to develop a specialty coffee crop in the country, to enhance its economy. She describes the impact of her efforts:

Not only was I able to document a remarkable story, I could show, in a highly personal way, the incredible commitment of our university's faculty, and the amazing contribution such a commitment can make.

. . . we wrote up an expansive plan that cast my department as a driver to illustrate MSU's land grant role, its global impact, and to sell coffee. I not only wrote stories for the Web, but also for grant applications, awards, and partners. I wrote coffee labels, brochures, tent cards, and radio promos. My photos appeared in major newspapers.

MSU alone has sold more than a ton of Rwanda specialty coffee, contributing a portion of each sale directly back to the project.

You can embed your PIO in any significant scientific event, and not just a major expedition. For example, in 2003, I was embedded in a week-long "Rubber Boot Camp" at the Organization for Tropical Studies' (OTS) La Selva biological station in Costa Rica. The OTS hosted the educational event—which gave participants a chance to try their hand at field science—to commemorate its 40th anniversary.

As an embedded PIO, I covered the event, writing a feature story about the OTS for Duke's alumni magazine. Also, embedded photographer Chris Hildreth produced "Postcards from Costa Rica," a photo-caption gallery depicting OTS research.

(Next: Work With PIOs Outside Your Institution)
© 2010 by Dennis Meredith
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