I recently published a book about how to be an effective public information officer (PIO) at a research institution. In the book, I say that “a PIO’s job is to make his or her employer look good.” This has ruffled some feathers, so I want to talk about it.
So, do I really think that it’s a PIO’s job to make his/her employer look good? You bet. But let’s unpack what that actually means.
As a PIO at a research institution, I try to identify stories that reflect the nature of the research we do. I want to find examples of things our researchers are doing that highlight why our work is interesting and important. I don’t pick a random sample of research findings to promote. Instead, I try to identify research findings that will get people’s attention, or that are particularly representative of why the work is worth doing. And, with the luxury of working with many different research teams, I have a lot to choose from. Sometimes deciding which research effort to focus on is driven by things like determining which research themes the institution is particularly interested in.
For example, let’s say that two good papers are being published, and I only have time to write something up about one of them. One is about solar cells, and one of them is about asthma. Both subjects are important and interesting. How do I prioritize them? If my institution is particularly focused on renewable energy, I’ll probably focus on the solar cells. If it’s focused on health and well-being, I’ll probably focus on asthma.
In real life, I’d probably scramble to find a way to do both – but regardless of how I choose to proceed, I’m not being disingenuous.
As a PIO, I also serve as a liaison between reporters and my institution. I try to make sure that reporters are aware of stories that I think they may be interested in covering. When reporters are looking for an expert in a given field, I try to connect them to the right person. And when reporters have questions about something happening at my institution, I try to get them answers – or put them in touch with folks who will be able to answer their questions.
All of these things I’ve just talked about help me make my employer look good.
Now, I suspect the primary concern of folks who don’t like the way I characterized the role of a PIO is that they conflate “making one’s employer look good” with “fudging the facts and only presenting sunshine and ponies.” That couldn’t be further from the truth.
The fact of the matter is that “making one’s employer look good” can only be done by communicating clearly, honestly and effectively about the work the institution is doing. Honesty and transparency are essential. Doing otherwise is not helpful to the institution.
For example, if there’s a problem, lying about it only makes things worse. Twisting the facts doesn’t help either. Reporters are smart enough to know when someone is trying to spin them. Presenting half-truths or trying to mislead reporters or the public only hurts your credibility, damages your institution’s reputation, and creates the potential for problems that linger for months or years. That’s a fact.
The idea that a science PIO is some sort of ombudsman or unaffiliated third party is laughable – we are, after all, paid by the research institution to help it communicate effectively.
But to communicate effectively – to make the institution look good – you need to develop a reputation for honesty. You need to earn the trust of the public and of reporters (but never expect them to take your word for anything – it is, after all, a reporter’s job to verify). To do those things you have to actually be honest and trustworthy.
In short, as a PIO, making one’s employer look good means anything but being a shill.