What Is a Science PIO’s Job?

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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.

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6 thoughts on “What Is a Science PIO’s Job?

  1. Kelly Tyrrell

    But, I’m just speaking for science! 😉 The institution is collateral, right?

    Ok, but seriously, this is well said, Matt. As science writers employed by institutions, we cannot separate ourselves from the reality that we represent and serve the institution. In my case, I work for a public research university, so I have an obligation to the public as well. And I have an obligation to the science communication enterprise, which includes reporters and the storytellers for whom I help translate the institution’s work. I can only serve all of these parties, as a representative of my institution, by communicating honestly and effectively and by being transparent. Though the information I present may not always be glossy, it will always be factual. And in so doing, I serve my institution well and help it maintain its integrity. I thus help my institution look good. If that seems smarmy, then so be it, I suppose, but I’d question the person who thought so.

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  2. Ronald McCoy

    Absolutely agree Matt. An institute will only look good by doing great science. Integrity combned with a commitment to the scientific method is the basis for ‘looking good’. Without these, people are not ignorant – they can spot alack of substance. My issue is that so mch good science does not get told, so the PIO’s job here is critical.Couldn’t agree more!

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  3. Back when Seed was a thing, the magazine editors (myself included) sat across from the editors of ScienceBlogs and would regularly have existential debates about the nature of SciComms. These debates tended to be over how readers could trust any science content they read to be an accurate representation of the current knowledge in a given field. The Blog editors’ position was essentially that no journalist could ever be as educated as the scientists who were blogging for them, and thus were intrinsically doomed to get things wrong. Our position was that no scientist could ever be objective about his or her own work or field, and thus were intrinsically doomed to be self-serving in one way or another.

    Now that I’m in the middle of these two worlds as a PIO, I see the potential for the best of both, and am always a little frustrated when we’re accused of being the worst of both.

    I find myself explaining exactly the dynamic you’re describing here on r/science, where people assume that press offices are the in the driver’s seat when it comes to overhyped “clickbait” articles. There’s the impression that if the scientists just explained things directly, or people just read the journal articles themselves, everyone would be better informed. But then you have people post the journal articles and get a) no discussion or b) completely incorrect takeaways.

    Penn signs my paychecks, but I report — in every way that matters — directly to the researchers I cover. I want to help them do their jobs, and fill in the gaps of their skill sets (namely, talking to non-scientists about their work) as best I can. Part of that is helping them earn the trust of non-scientists by being, first and foremost, clear and honest as possible about what they do. This goes beyond making sure that my accounts of their work are factual, but also trying to presage how language or concepts that are second nature to them might be misconstrued by people outside their field of study.

    Since this is something that science news consumers ostensibly want, it’s always a little surprising to me when readers don’t see PIOs as allies.

    I can think of at least a few examples where there comms offices were clearly not on the same page as their researchers as far as the implications of the work were concerned, but I still think this must be more the exception than the rule.

    It would be interesting to delve deeper into the origins of this distrust. I assume it’s just the dint of the PR industry in general, but considering the clamor in the STEM world for more public relations with scientists, I feel like this is something we could turn around. We basically need better PR for PR.

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  4. Earle Holland

    Evan, respectfully, no. What we need is to understand that the public information role is fundamentally not the same as a public relations role. The two are not necessarily interchangeable. The former is oriented to the needs of the public, the ultimate audience. The latter is charged with supporting his/her employer or client. We don’t work “for” the researchers–we work with them. We work for the people our information is meant for. If the folks who sign our pay checks benefit in the long run, then all the better, but that shouldn’t be our goal.

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  5. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] Morsels For The Mind – 25/09/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

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