Field of Science

The science public information officer: it's complicated

The glamorous life of a PIO. Via Wikimedia Commons.
So, as many of my graduate school friends would begin a story, I used to be a public information officer (PIO). I worked for a large state agency in a very large and populous state, an agency that had tens of thousands of employees. We ran a hugely popular ad campaign about (not) littering, a hugely popular program about picking up litter, and innumerable other public information programs that incorporated engineering, materials science, transportation innovations, conservation, archaeology, and environmental mitigation issues. 

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?

So....?

12 comments:

  1. I am a PIO at a large university. I always vet my release copy (quotes and all) with the relevant researchers. In fact, everyone in my office does -- we require it. Sometimes this vetting requires constant pestering of said researchers. And, sometimes, the researchers don't get back to us. When that happens, we kill the release. I've probably let 8-10 releases simply drop into the dustbin because a researcher hasn't gotten back to me. (Or, in one case, returned the draft release to me 8 MONTHS later.)

    Before writing a release, I interview the researchers. How else would I know what I'm writing about? This helps me get the science right, and helps me place the findings in context. It also helps me get "good quote," by asking lots and lots of questions. When I get a quote I like, I read it back to the researcher. "Did I get that right?" Then, after writing the release, I send out a draft to the relevant parties. I ask that they track changes on any corrections, and that they collate their responses (if multiple parties are involved). Sometimes that means I have to significantly re-write releases, and sometimes it means we go through several iterations before everyone is happy. I am, after all, writing for a lay audience. So be it. If I botch something out of carelessness, my reputation suffers with both researchers and reporters. If I want to be good at my job, I can't afford that.

    Now, what is the biggest hurdle to timely reporting of research? Lack of lead time. Ideally, researchers will tell me about forthcoming papers or conference presentations ahead of time. This gives us the luxury of time. Not much time, but enough to pull together a good release and issue it in a timely way (e.g., just before the conference, or the same day that the paper is published). If I find out at the last minute, I still put out a good release -- but it may be days or weeks after the publication (for instance) came out. If I find out weeks after the paper was published, it becomes difficult (or impossible) to get the media interested. The newsroom's definition of "new" is significantly different from that in academia.

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  2. To be candid I can relate a lot more to your previous job interacting with Governor Richards than I can the science stuff. When I worked as a legislative assistant for a Senator, I had everything vetted - speeches, comments for the congressional record, ideas for legislation, and so on - through the Senator's legislative director (who, interestingly enough, was a Rhodes Scholar with a PhD in genetics as well as a law degree from Harvard). I was not a spokesperson for the Senator and would have suffered severe consequences had I ever tried to assume that role. Policy can get fairly intricate as well, and the last thing we needed was me going to some reporter and being 99 percent accurate on the Senator's position.

    I've also been a spokesperson for different organizations, and then you have a bit more leeway because you're trained on what you're saying and how you interact with the media. You are explicitly given the authority to riff if you have to. You're just accountable for everything you say. I know that in least one of those spokesperson assignments, I made some judgment calls that could have backfired, but I made them because I was confident in my facts, my position, and the particular situation.

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  3. Thanks, Emily, for your insights here. As a writer who covers the technology of life science, I am a consumer, as it were, of press releases. Such-and-such a company, the world leader in providing tools for life scientists, announces a new DNA preparation kit!!! I also get quite a few releases on research findings.

    I have never reprinted a press release verbatim, certainly, though I have occasionally quoted them directly ("... according to a press release...") if I wasn't able to reach an actual human by press time.

    Naturally, I've always assumed the quotes and statements contained in those releases were vetted by those in a position to do so. It's quite distressing to find that's not the case.

    Obviously, for reporters, it's 'caveat emptor' -- we need to verify what's in these releases with live sources. But that's not always possible: Sometimes researchers aren't available (ie, travelling or in meetings all day) or simply don't want to talk to the media. When that happens, it really ruffles my feathers: I am a reporter, not a stenographer.

    What I would ask of PIOs is that they insist that, if the university and/or research department is going to actually issue a release on their faculty's research, that those researchers actually agree to make themselves available to the press. Otherwise, it's too much of a one-way street: the university spoon-feeding information, but not allowing reporters the opportunity to review it appropriately.

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  4. Excellent point, Jeffrey! Thank you. This is something I deal with quite often as a PIO. It's not enough to vet the release, I tell the researcher, you may have to actually TALK to someone. :) It's not always possible -- researchers have family and teaching obligations that are not always predictable -- but we try to schedule our releases to come out when a researcher is able to field calls (it's one reason we issue releases on conference-presented findings BEFORE the conference).

    Another note for PIOs: try to know who you're pitching. If someone covers biology, don't pitch them something on astrophysics. Mistakes can be made (I've certainly made them), but don't make the same mistake twice (once you've been corrected). And journalists: if you're pitched something that's off your beat, please tell the PIO -- it helps us avoid pitching you off-topic stuff in the future.

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  5. I'm a science PIO at a small, non-profit research institution. We pride ourselves on our lack of bureaucracy and the fact that we are an institute "for scientists, by scientists." But that means that our department, funded almost entirely by the overhead on the scientists' grants, is completely at their whim. We have very little power of our own to set rules guiding our press releases and who speaks to the media. I would NEVER dream of sending out a release that wasn't 100% approved by the scientist involved in the study.

    That being said, we don't publicize them, but do try to follow two basic guidelines for deciding which scientific papers rise to the level of a press release: 1) the paper can't be published yet 2) paper should be published in a journal with an impact factor of 9 (e.g. PNAS) or higher. We make exceptions if the paper illustrates some aspect of the institute's research that we really need to highlight for one reason or another.

    My major hurdle is the push-and-pull with the scientists over how technical we get. I want the release to be scientifically accurate and as lay-friendly as possible, of course. But the scientists reviewing these releases tend to view them as their peers would see them. It's almost like they are afraid to leave out a single detail. The edits I get back sometimes make the release completely unusable and I have to spend a lot of time delicately pushing back until we reach some sort of compromise. Often, I'm not at all happy with the final product, but that's what I'm stuck with.

    Now here's something that's really helped: we have a blog. That's where we benefit from the lack of bureaucracy--it's our place to write about anything and everything, with very little oversight. So if someone sends me a paper that I don't feel is appropriate for a press release, I don't have to turn them away completely. In fact, I never say no to anything someone sends me. If it's not a press release, it's a blog post. And press releases also get converted into blog posts, too, so the blog has become a very valuable pool of content--everything we've written about everything, all carefully categorized and tagged by center, program, researcher, disease area, etc. Then, every blog post is used as fodder for social media and select posts get re-purposed for our staff newsletter.

    I've always wondered.. how do other science PIOs triage papers into those that will get a press release and those that won't? And how much ownership can we expect to have over our own writing?

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  6. As a science PIO, how do you balance your time between creating the content (writing releases and the like) and distributing it (pitching, developing relationships with journalists, etc.)? Or do you have different people in the department to perform these separate functions?

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  7. ShipLives: You know what would be a reasonable compromise (for me, anyway)? If researchers cannot be available, for whatever reason, maybe they could write up a 1-2 page summary in their own words, including context (why is this important, how does it relate to previous literature), brief summary of the methods used, key findings and conclusions, points of interest, unanswered questions, and what's next. If they provide that to the PIOs for distribution to interested reporters (ie, those who actually request an interview), then at least we know what the researcher him-(or her)-self is really thinking.

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  8. @Ship, @Jeffrey A lot of the high IF journals require a "general audience" cover letter graf or summary. Wouldn't it be great if at least some portion of that could be made available to accompany a news release? That wouldn't require more from the researchers themselves, which I'd assume would be a stumbling block.

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  9. Anonymous (on triage) - How do we decide what to promote? Good question. The classic answer is: does it affect sex, death or money? If so, I'm on it. For everything else, I ask several questions: 1) Is this a big deal in the relevant field of study? If yes, do it (researchers are usually pretty honest about this, if you ask them). 2) Does it have practical applications/ramifications that can be explained to people outside the field? If yes, do it. 3) Is it really freaking cool? (i.e., would my mom/neighbor/mechanic think it was really freaking cool?) If yes, do it. Otherwise, I usually pass.

    Anonymous (on time)- Speaking solely for myself, I'd guess that I spend more time on writing releases than pitching them. In part, that's because I already have good relationships with journalists, and they know I won't pitch them unless I think I've got something good. If I were just starting out, the balance would likely tilt slightly in the other direction. Also, if it's a subject area that I'm new to, the balance tilts towards pitching -- because I've got a new set of writers/outlets to become familiar with.

    Jeffrey/Emily - Those are good ideas. The problem with getting a lay summary from the researcher is that they are often unable to provide one. They're too steeped in the jargon. Also, they will often torture themselves over this -- taking as long to write a lay person's abstract as they did on the whole damn paper. I like the idea of using the cover letter language. I'll explore that one moving forward.

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  10. I work as a science PIO at a university. As with so many things, I think that the true test of success here is about building relationships, both with the scientists and the media. I also think that living and working in a small state, and at a mid-sized university (but within a smaller college) help.

    I think that university settings are somewhat more sensitive to vetting the releases with the appropriate researchers. In my prior positions in state government, I felt like that process was lacking.

    I have a science background, not a PR, comm, or journalism degree. Honestly, I think that alone sometimes plays to my advantage. I've been misquoted. I've had to deal with an incompetent state agency PIO who wanted to make a release about my work fancy schmancy, and therefore inaccurate in the process. So perhaps I'm a tad more sensitive to the concerns of the researchers I work with. Not to imply that others aren't; I can just commiserate.

    I always vet my releases. I always get quotes approved. Time is always the biggest issue. A line that I always use is that if the news release isn't out on time then its not "new" anymore and therefore does no good. If I can't get a release out on time, I always try and find another avenue to get the info out into the universe, so that my time and the researcher's time isn't a waste.

    In this era of newspaper cutbacks and layoffs, I have seen my releases reprinted verbatim and/or quotes cut and pasted. But, in todays world, sometimes its that as opposed to no inclusion at all. I'm always appreciative when I get a heads up about that first.

    It is still a challenge to get our researchers to talk directly to the media, especially when they are not the leading expert in the topic at hand. What most don't realize is that a local or state paper doesn't want to go to the national expert on a topic; they just want someone local who can speak intelligently, and can therefore serve as a source.

    I'm always looking for new ideas and really appreciate this post!

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  11. This is absolutely spot on: "What most don't realize is that a local or state paper doesn't want to go to the national expert on a topic; they just want someone local who can speak intelligently, and can therefore serve as a source."

    Also, my university now has a research blog (which was launched by me and two colleagues). I've found it to be a great tool for doing multiple things, including: 1). Taking a very conversational approach to material; 2). The complete opposite -- writing uber-techy posts, that would not be accessible to a lay audience (e.g., a piece on refactoring tools for programmers -- only geeks will get it, but they're interested); 3). Unconventional approaches, such as trivia quizzes, etc. It's also a space where we can write about research which we didn't find out about until well after the publication date.

    Interestingly, we started the blog to reach our internal audience. In that respect, it's a bit of a failure -- very low readership. However, it has had a significant (and unexpected) benefit: most of the people who read it are reporters. It's led to great stories in Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, etc. Pretty cool.

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  12. Emily,

    At my institution, we vet all of our articles with the researchers to check for accuracy. If it takes weeks for a researcher to get back to us, this can mean that some articles don't see the light of day as "news." So be it. Our goal is to be sure the information is accurate when it leaves our office to give journalists a solid building block of information that they can then write their story with accurate background information.

    In answer to your question about stumbling blocks in getting out timely, accurate information, I would say that learning about published papers in a timely manner is difficult. Only a few journals notify PIOs that a researcher is being published, and researchers don't always think to contact our office, even if they've worked with us before. So we often learn about a story a few days before a paper will be published. Nevertheless, we still make sure the information in the release is accurate by checking it with the source.

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