The seven deadly sins of the science PIO (and how to avoid them)

More coverage of this session

By Amanda Mascarelli

The original sins of the public information officer aren’t quite as deadly as wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony – but close. Some of the most common trespasses for PIOs include not returning reporters’ emails and calls in a timely fashion, hyping news, being dishonest or misleading, micromanaging rather than facilitating, not knowing one’s audience, and not following through on promises.

“I see a lot of sinners I know,” joked Terry Devitt, director of research communications at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, addressing a packed roomful of PIOs for the session he moderated on “The Seven Deadly Sins of the Science PIO (and How to Avoid Them)” at ScienceWriters 2011 on Saturday.

In September, Devitt and other panel members conducted an online survey, asking journalists and PIOs to reflect on what drives them crazy about each other and how to improve upon journalist/PIO relationships and interactions. Of the 79 respondents, 61% identified themselves as journalists and 35% as PIOs. Many of the PIO responders had 20 to 30 years experience on the job.

Some of the most egregious transgressions of PIOs, according to journalists’ survey responses, included “too many crappy, poorly written, jargon, acronym and cliché-riddled, out-of-date, simplistic, non-contextual press releases, bugging reporters with calls or unsolicited releases and pitches, and assuming the reporter knows too much or too little.”

“A lot of these [sins] are self-evident to those of us who have been in the business,” said Devitt, who has been a PIO for more than 27 years. “But what was really surprising was how frequently these criticisms were voiced,” suggesting that the problems are quite widespread, he said.

Panelist A’ndrea Messer, senior science and research information officer at Penn State University then discussed the Ten Commandments of the science PIO. The list includes: be responsive, truthful and accurate; be accessible; be selective; be contrite; be patient; be a conduit; be a “potted palm,” meaning that PIOs should facilitate interactions between journalists and researchers and then fade into the background; and avoid the use of the word ‘breakthrough.’

Another panelist, David Harris, an independent science communication designer and author of the blog The Enlightened PIO, emphasized the importance of “relationship management” in the role of the PIO. First and foremost, “drink with journalists,” urged Harris. It needn’t just be over beers; even coffee will do, he said. In sticky situations and difficult circumstances, these relationships can save the day.