Do PIOs need science journalists any more?

By Tanya Lewis

A public information officer writes up a press release for her institution, runs it past her source, and hands it off to a journalist who publishes a story about it. Research institutions have been using this news model for ages, but as Dylan put it, the times they are a-changin’.

This question of whether PIOs need journalists anymore was the topic of a session at the 2012 Science Writers conference Oct. 26-27 in Raleigh, North Carolina. David Harris of PNAS, who has worked previously as a PIO, moderated the discussion alongside panelists Clinton Colmenares, senior communications director at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, and Karl Leif Bates, director of research communications at Duke University.

According to Harris, PIOs do need journalists, but only for now. He spoke of how the traditional media ecosystem with its top-down sources of authority has changed to one based on trust relationships, where the public gets its information filtered through personal networks. PIOs must generate that trust among their audience, he urged. But his take-home message was that whether PIOs need journalists depends on their strategic goals: If institutions want to reach a mass audience, mainstream media is still the most effective route, but additionally, institutions should have a home base on the web for archiving their own stories and information.

Colmenares echoed Harris’ comments on the changing media landscape, emphasizing the breadth of channels information can now take from source to audience. In spite of the discouraging cutbacks in journalism, surveys show the public wants more science, health and medicine news, he said. While PIOs can help meet that need, he too believes journalists are still needed. He cited the recent fungal meningitis outbreak as an example of a story PIOs wouldn’t cover. “And we need the media to keep us honest,” he said. Yet Colmenares also stressed that institutions need to have news blogs to showcase their content directly to readers.

Bates made the case that “everyone is the media; everybody can publish.” He called for completely rethinking the press release as a product — “nobody’s going to put that on a Facebook page,” as he put it. To get the media’s attention nowadays, “you’ve got to write a lede that will work on a phone,” he said — not clutter it up with lengthy researcher affiliations. He pointed out that websites like and often publish press releases verbatim, so PIOs need to write them more like journalists, even using outside sources (though career journalists may take issue with this). Finally, Bates underscored the importance of providing good visuals, which often determine how much pickup a press release gets.

Even Lady Gaga got a mention. (In case you missed the news story, a Duke researcher recently named a fern genus after the pop singer.) Some at the session felt this kind of story wasn’t providing the sort of publicity Duke needed, while others found it could engage a much broader set of readers. One thing’s clear: the PIO may be “born this way,” but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

October 28, 2012

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