Scientists, Reporters and PIOs: What Do You Think About Online Press Materials?

Image: Brian Lary

In late February of 2014, I’ll be moderating a conversation about online press materials – the stuff that public information officers (PIOs) make available to reporters online. What do reporters want or need in an online press package? What do PIOs think reporters want or need? And what do scientists make of all this?

The conversation about online press materials will be part of ScienceOnline Together, being held on the NC State University campus (where I work) in Raleigh. I’ll be there to moderate the conversation, but I will not be there to lead the conversation. My job is to get other people to talk about this, to keep the conversation moving, and to make sure no one hogs the mic. That’s it.

To that end, I am soliciting input from you. Yes, you. The person reading this right now. I want to know what you think. What questions or insights do you have? I want you to be part of the conversation, regardless of whether you’ll be there in person or not. And we can start that conversation right now. The hashtag for this session is #scioPress, and we can start using it today.

But if you want to make comments that are more than 140 characters long (and I hope you do), please put them in the comments here.

To get the ball rolling, I’m going to post in something written by Lauren Rugani. Rugani is a media relations officer at the National Academy of Sciences and previously worked in communications offices at CERN and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. She was also instrumental in proposing this ScienceOnline session about press materials.

Maybe her thoughts will jump-start some ideas of your own. If so, please share your ideas.

Here’s what Rugani  had to say —–

Despite conversations in recent years on whether or not the press release is dead and how to improve press releases, the standard press release model remains stubbornly in place. This session could explore possibilities beyond the press release that would still give institutions the publicity they want, journalists the compelling and original stories they look for, and scientists the peace of mind that their work is being represented accurately.

I really, truly hope that this session attracts people from all three areas, not just the PIOs! Here are some questions for everyone to consider and weigh in on:

How can writers find stories from institutions without a press release?

What other kinds of materials do journalists want, that PIOs or scientists can produce given realistic resources and constraints?

Example: Data visualization. The National Academy of Sciences produced this interactive chart to accompany a report on U.S. health rankings compared with other industrialized nations, but a few minutes playing with data could lead reporters to other interesting angles or entirely new stories.

Should PIOs produce other “original” or “packaged” material? If so, what’s left for the journalist to do? Or should PIOs provide ideas and leave journalists to come up with their own stories? How can they do that? Which do journalists prefer?

Should scientists be required to produce ancillary material as part of submissions to or publications in peer-reviewed journals?

Example: The New Journal of Physics accepts video abstracts for their papers, which are free to watch, include transcripts, and give journalists insight into scientists’ personalities, topics
of study, and possible story angles.

Should scientists forgo public relations completely?

A recent CJR article proposed that eLife paper authors could refrain from involving PR departments and instead work with journal staff to produce “digests,” or brief descriptions of the work that would be included as part of the technical paper and held to the same scientific standards.


6 thoughts on “Scientists, Reporters and PIOs: What Do You Think About Online Press Materials?

  1. Hi Matt,

    Many of the press releases I get come with papers whose results may be statistically weak. I am not interested in covering these papers no matter how cool the conclusions sound – so putting that info up front would be great. It’s fairly often that I get all excited about a paper, just to see that they study was performed on 50 college students or a few mice.

    Another thing — and I know that this isn’t easy or always possible — is that as a visual person I like to see images. Especially in ‘new gadget’ or engineering stories, I like to see what the thing looks like, to get an idea of how it works. Some releases have these, but fewer than I expect. I love the idea of interactive charts. Pictures draw me in, especially images with great data, and I will likely be trying to find a different angle than most of the writers who will cover the work as news.

    Just a few thoughts off the top of my head. Can’t wait to see you in Raleigh.


  2. Here’s an off-the-cuff thought, inspired by Lionel Ritchie:

    My honest answer to “What do I need from press materials” is “A headline and then a link to the paper”. If the first 2 sentences are enough to interest me, I’ll read the paper directly and draw my own conclusions from there. But am I–a journalist–really your audience any more? Online, press releases have as much status as any news article. They get indexed by sites like ScienceDaily and PhysOrg that, to my eternal chagrin, get mistaken for news sites. Are we really still in a world when press releases are aimed at the press, or are they just a direct form of communication to the public in the guise of something targeted at the press? And that question does inform how you go about crafting the releases and what ethical standards you use to do so.

    Basically: Is it me you’re looking for?


  3. Hey Ed – Yes, you (meaning reporters) are still who I’m looking for. There are three reasons for this.

    1). Some people may find a news release on a churnalism site, but not that many; and some people may read the news on my university’s research blog, but not many. Getting coverage in a relatively mainstream news outlet serves as an amplifier allowing me to reach far more people.

    2). Trust is part of this too. If I told you what a great guy I am, you may believe me. But you’d probably be skeptical (and find it annoying). But if other people say what a swell guy I am, you’re more likely to believe it. It’s the same with research stories. Good reporters talk to third-party sources, check facts, and bring their own critical thinking to the table. This makes their assessments of a science story more reliable, at least in the eyes of some people. This is especially true for reporters who have well-established bona fides with the public (which isn’t always a good thing, when they get something wrong).

    3). Sometimes we want to reach a specific group of people. In fact, I pretty much always want to reach specific groups of people. E.g., when I’m pitching a story about materials science, I really want to reach the materials science research community. Most (if not all) of those folks aren’t reading, etc. To reach them, you want to work with reporters at outlets like Materials Today magazine or the Materials Views news site.

    All that said, I try to write news releases that offer a good (accurate) summary in a newsy-ish fashion. No one with a lick of sense would confuse them for news stories (I don’t plug in third-party sources), but hopefully they’re not painful to read.


  4. Just got a note via Twitter on this from Sarah Zielinski (‏@SarahZielinski). Here’s what she looks for: “Pictures and video. A link to the paper, at a minimum. I’ve run into too many press releases that forget to mention the journal.”


  5. One annoying thing I’ve seen a few times is when the press release massively overhypes the results, and if you read the paper that conclusion isn’t at all supported. We get enough massively overhyped articles already, do the university press centres really have to add to it? While I know they’re trying to get attention, sometimes it gets to the point of downright misleading.

    So, a description that is in line with reality.


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