Public Information Officers as Intermediaries

In acting as an intermediary between an institution and the media, the PIO serves that institution best by aiding the flow of news and information, rather than attempting to control it. For example, some institutions insist that all media calls be routed through the public information office, a policy that most media dislike. Such a policy actually does little to control the news; reporters will invariably discover adverse stories on their own. Instead, obstructionist policies may tend to make negative stories more likely, as the distrust they sow leads media to believe that a greater number of such stories exist.

In fact, encouraging the free flow of information leads to more opportunities for positive coverage of an institution. Journalists are more likely to return to such an institution for experts to quote in their articles and to interview for radio and TV segments. They're also more likely to trust releases and other information from the institution.

Thus, PIOs should offer their help to journalists, but not insist on being an intermediary in media contacts. And in situations where the PIO does become an intermediary, the process should be as efficient as possible.

For example, when a journalist calls for information, every effort should be made to have a PIO available to take the call or to return a phone message promptly. The PIO should always ask a journalist what his or her deadline is and make every effort to meet it. And when a journalist calls a public information office to reach a researcher, the officer should give the researcher's phone number, and should attempt to transfer the call, saving the journalist a second call.

Particularly enlightened PIOs will even contact their colleagues at other institutions to help journalists if their scientists can't. They know that such effective service makes subsequent calls from writers far more likely.

Public information usually involves both publicity and promotion. These are considered synonymous by some but differ significantly in the eyes of the news media.

Publicity is intended to give information about events as they occur. Publicity material should have news value — a "news peg" on which to hang a story. The story's use by the media will depend on its newsworthiness — its importance and interest to readers or listeners. For example, the most widely recognized news peg for a science story is publication of the research in a refereed journal or delivery of a paper on the work at a major scientific meeting.

Promotion also seeks to inform, but it is intended particularly to "promote" activities, ideas, or products. This kind of material sometimes has a news peg but often does not. Promotional messages, such as appeals for money, should not be sent to the science writer, but to the managing or city editors of newspapers and the public-service staff of radio and television stations. Nor should it be posted on internet news services or news groups.


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