Beyond The News Release – How PIOs Can Connect With The Public

Photo credit: Lauren Nichols, YourWildlife.org.
Photo credit: Lauren Nichols, YourWildlife.org.

Public information officers (PIOs) at research institutions are responsible for helping their employers connect with the public. Often this is through conventional media relations and social media efforts. But sometimes PIOs can find other ways, unconventional ways, of connecting with various audiences.

To explore these issues, Karen Kreeger, senior science communications manager at Penn Medicine, organized a session for this year’s National Association of Science Writers meeting at Ohio State University. The session, “Beyond the News Release Grind: Connecting with the Public as PIOs,” was held Oct. 18. (You can see tweets from the session at the #BNRSci hashtag.)

The panel that Karen assembled featured PIOs with experience working on everything from podcasting to science cafes to science festivals. I served on the panel as well, and offered up a brief overview of several outreach efforts that fall outside the typical media relations routine.

I’m writing this in advance of the conference and scheduling it to go up just after our session ends, so I don’t know exactly what the other panelists will be saying. (Heck, I’m not entirely sure exactly what I’ll be saying!) But I thought I’d share an outline of my notes here. I hope you find it interesting and/or useful.

Working With Museums

Museums are often looking for experts to speak at public events, ranging from informal science cafes to formal events centering on a new exhibit. If there are museums in your community, it makes sense to work with them – you could benefit from the exposure they can provide to local audiences, and they can benefit from the expertise that your researchers can provide.

Here are some things to think about if you want to collaborate with a museum:

  • Reach out and build a relationship with the relevant staff.
  • Find out what the museum needs and is looking for.
  • Identify researchers who do good work AND: Work on an interesting subject; Have good public speaking skills and/or an engaging personality; Whose research lines up with the museum’s goals for a given event.

And don’t forget that you’ll need to be able to tell your boss why you are doing this. For example, does it foster a research partnership? Help community relations? Is educational outreach part of your organization’s mission? Does it check a box on someone’s Broader Impacts statement for an NSF grant? Make a list and be able to justify why you’re spending time on this.

In my capacity as a PIO at NC State, I work periodically with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. One of the folks I collaborate with there is Brian Malow, so I asked him what he looks for in a collaboration:

It is good to know what our needs are at the museum. For instance, in our case, we have short daily talks for a very general (and perhaps young) audience. We also have our weekly science cafes – which aim at an adult audience of smart, engaged laypeople. And maybe we sometimes need an expert opinion on something. Or perhaps an expert voice added to a video or audio podcast or some such thing.

Also, perhaps, even if you don’t hear from me for a while, checking in every so often – maybe you have a topic or researcher you want me to know about – especially if it’s about to be a popular topic.

And I REALLY want to know if someone is a good public speaker or presenter. That’s important. I often say that a great speaker can make almost any topic appealing to an audience – and, on the other hand, a bad speaker can make even a great topic seem lame.

Capitalize On Your Expertise

Photo credit: Lauren Nichols, YourWildlife.org.
Photo credit: Lauren Nichols, YourWildlife.org.

Another way to find unconventional outreach methods is to make an inventory of what you (and your institution) are good at. What sort of resources do you have available?

For example, I’m good at writing, interrogating researchers, and explaining things. I know that kids have lots of questions (and so do parents). So I reached out to a local parenting publication about having parents (and kids) send in their science questions. Then I’d work with scientists to answer them.

It was a good idea, with decent results, but ultimately petered out because we ran out of questions. That said, I think it was a good concept. If you have the market cornered (e.g., if you’re the only university in your area), this is an idea that might be worth pursuing with local news outlets. Even if you’re not, it might be worth a try – I managed to pull it off even though NC State is one of five universities in Raleigh, not to mention nearby universities such as Duke, NC Central University, and UNC Chapel Hill.

It also makes sense to look for places where the things that you are passionate about intersect with institutional goals.

For example, I’m passionate about issues related to diversity. I know it’s an important subject, and I wanted to do something about it. My employer also values diversity – and wants to attract the best possible students and faculty. So I tried to find opportunities that would take advantage of that intersection of interests.

This ultimately led to the creation of a series called “This Is What Science Looks Like At NC State.” I wrote an entire post about What Science Looks Like already, so I won’t go into it here – but it’s an example of how PIOs can tap into their understanding of institutional goals to pursue a subject they’re passionate about – even if there’s not a clear “news hook.”

So, readers, does this make sense? Do you have questions? Are there things I missed? I look forward to your feedback. And I hope to share more from this session soon!

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