|The glamorous life of a PIO. Via Wikimedia Commons.|
We were responsible in that office--there were about a dozen of us--for all of that and for writing the innumerable press releases associated with any issue of statewide or national importance related to what this agency did. In addition, our work involved collecting the hundreds of regional PIOs together in an annual meeting that we arranged, a three-day workshop for training in everything from getting decent quotes from engineers to the one I led on writing feature and news stories (inverted pyramid!). In our spare time, we produced a 16-page tabloid newspaper for department employees, who eagerly awaited its appearance each month, and wrote speeches for whatever department hoity toities needed them.
This PIO job was one of my first right out of the gate with my English degree, although I'd done newswriting and interned at a high-profile glossy mag. As part of this job, which I had for about four years, I wrote hundreds and hundreds of news releases. Our basic process was to take a packet of information about whatever the department was promoting--anti-litter campaigns, environmental mitigation, political appointments--and turn it into a news release. After we'd finished our daily cycle of this, we'd walk the releases over to the state capitol building (so analog of us, yes?) where all the major outlets had their bureaus--AP, Dallas Morning News, Fort-Worth Star-Telegram (miss them), and many, many others--and give the hard copies of the release to whatever representative for the bureau happened to be handy. We knew our news media folk, and they knew us. How much has that changed, I wonder?
And here's what would happen. Texas was at that time full of small-town newspapers, probably run on a shoestring even then. We'd always collect clips related to anything about the department, and hundreds of times, I'd seen a release I'd written printed verbatim in these smaller papers. It was rare--I can't recall a specific incident--that these would pop up in toto in the larger papers, although I once remember one of my releases about the large and popular anti-litter campaign hitting the AP wire pretty much intact. We knew that the more "news like" and less "marketing like" we made those releases, the more likely that a lot of their content would make it into any story, in whole or in part.
Another thing we knew was that engineers in general do not give good quote. We had wholesale authorization to make quotes for the releases that sounded reasonable, usually attributed to the department director or commission head, both high profile in the state. On a few occasions, I had to attribute quotes to our then-governor, Ann Richards (oh, how we miss her)...for whom I also once wrote a speech, a part of which she actually used (it doesn't get more exciting than that for a state PIO grunt). In most cases, the person whom we attributed cast an eye over a packet of the releases and approved the quotes. Certainly, the governor's office, which was a careful bunch, did that.
But most of the time, that casting resulted in no changes. In other words, the quotes came from us but received a quick approval from the quotee. Did she or he read them in detail, mull their accuracy, get out the red pen and reword what they had "said"? Very rarely. We were good at what we did.
Our process for writing releases and the information they included was subject to specific departmental rules, but those rules were not--and are not--universal. When I was in graduate school, our university had variable rules about who could talk to the news media and under what provenance. Indeed, the marching orders seemed to come down to specific researchers and their labs. The regulations governing who actually spoke to the news media, who saw quotes, where any publicly released information was vetted--they've always varied from university to university, and I have experience with four on the non-media side of things.
So...as my friends would say...when it comes to PIOs, there are a few issues worth considering. What are their respective institutional processes for, say, quoting people, vetting quotes, or even determining whether non-media representatives can speak to the news media? When a PIO gets a release out there, in science we no longer have the fellow sitting in his basement office in the capitol building taking hard copies; instead, we have online aggregators like Science Daily and PhysOrg, which should be clearly marked as such and whose existence I greatly appreciate for their aggregation services. Sometimes, small-time Websites or churnalism sites take these releases and reproduce them verbatim, just as those small-town newspapers did. The small-town newspapers never noted that these verbatim reproductions were news releases, but in the online world, a simple line of text will do it (so do it!). Often, writers on some sites may not take the release verbatim, but they'll take the quotes ("quoted in a news release about the research, so-and-so said")--I've done that myself--and that leads to the question, What is the real provenance of those quotes, and how much are they worth? Obviously, getting your own quote is preferable.
And finally, there's the question of vetting. Sometimes, graduate students can't even get the attention of their advisors without waiting a week and trying multiple times. If a university doesn't have some policy for researchers about quick turnaround on news release content review, should a PIO wait for a week or two weeks until finally getting the OK on that? And how much of a researcher's input will be in line with the goal of disseminating an eye-catching, university-pleasing release about its output?
I am writing this because I've been seeing some discussion on Twitter about how PIOs may distribute science-related news releases without obtaining a final approval from the researchers involved of how the science is presented. The simple, obvious answer would be, "Get them to look over it and confirm accuracy." But the real-life constraints of university policy, time, researcher reluctance or misunderstanding about media relations, variability in PIO scientific background, news cycles, and a number of other factors--including getting that quote--complicate the issue. I know quite a few science PIOs, and none of them just type up a news release and send it packing. In fact, their issues often are more focused on scientists who bypass them and their expertise and end up in a kerfuffle of some kind.
As someone who was once on the PIO side of things and has been privy to a lot of sci-comm PIO concerns while serving on the conference committee for the National Association of Science Writers, I'm not going to argue against the need for review (there's your daily "duh"). But I'd like to hear from any PIO who doesn't ensure one way or the other that the science is accurately explained--who are you? And then I'd like to hear from PIOs what they think are the real stumbling blocks to getting good, timely releases to target outlets. Is it ensuring accuracy? Getting good quote? University regulations? Scientists bypassing the media office? And what are your struggles, as someone who is invested in communicating science, in ensuring a literate audience?