PIO Basics

As the crowd was settling in to the "PIO Basics" session of the 2006 NASW meeting, a man in the row behind me leaned forward and whispered to the woman next to me, "I know nothing about being a PIO." "Neither do I," she whispered back.

From my conversations before the session, I knew that many people in the audience shared that same sentiment, yet almost everyone in the room admitted to being a PIO of some sort during the talks. Apparently it is common to start a career in public affairs or research communications with a background in science or journalism. Comforted that I wasn't alone, I eased into my chair and waited eagerly to hear the secret recipe for PIO success.

As I listed to the experts, I realized that that perfect-every-time recipe just doesn't exist. The job of the PIO is far too expansive for cookbook-style instructions. Sure, PIOs write about science. But they also act as editors, deciding what counts as news and choosing what to include in a story and how to include it. PIOs handle crisis situations, a responsibility that necessitates courage, diplomacy and a wide view of their institutions. PIOs also provide the creative drive and meticulous execution behind innovative communications. My mind felt a bit muddled as I imagined juggling these responsibilities, each described in turn by the three panelists: A'ndrea Elyse Messer of Penn State University, Earle Holland of Ohio State University and Terry Devitt of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Messer explained how maintaining editorial control over her own content helps her deliver unbiased science news to the media. She tied in with control an underlying spirit of sharing. When the media phones her looking for experts in a field where Penn State lacks expertise, she refers them to a more appropriate institution. Better science news helps promote better science news, she says.

Holland addressed a topic every PIO dreads: managing a crisis. In his slightly scary presentation, he emphasized that science is a risky business and not all science news is good news. When a crisis arises, he says, there is only one sure path: "Tell it all and tell it quick." The PIO, however, has the power to turn a sensational story into one that brings the public closer to understanding the true risks of science by being a master of both the public perception of the risk and the actual risk.

In a talk that went well beyond PIO basics, Devitt discussed the power of creative communications. As examples, he shared his successful "The Why Files" site, the first science webzine, which is still going strong after 10 years, and Scientific American's 60-second science podcasts, which after a few short months gets over 190,000 downloads per week. If at all possible, find ways to broaden your communications, and by all means, find a way to make technology work for you, he says.

The job of PIO may not be as simple as pie, but panelists all stressed one key underlying principal. The PIO's primary responsibility is to promote science literacy. It doesn't matter for which institution or about what kind of research. Ultimately, every PIO wants to sell his or her best science stories, but the only way to sell great science stories is to cultivate an audience that wants to read them. They do it with good science writing, integrity, and a big helping of fun.

Elizabeth Dougherty is the communications manager for the Harvard-MIT Division of Health, Sciences and Technology. She is a recent graduate of the Boston University Science and Medical Journalism program. Before she discovered science writing, she worked as a "Code Monkey."

Oct. 28, 2006

Drexel University Online