Note: This post first appeared on the Association of Health Care Journalist’s Covering Health blog.
There are a lot of posts and stories out there focused on how public information officers (PIOs) can work more effectively with journalists, or that highlight extremely bad pitches aimed at reporters. I’ve written a few of them myself. But there are also things that reporters can do to work more effectively with PIOs. You don’t see many posts about that.
A couple years ago, I ran a guest post by Lauren Rugani – then a PIO at the National Academy of Sciences – on nine things that drive PIOs nuts. Here I revisit the subject, reiterating some of Rugani’s points but expanding on them too.
I do not expect reporters to trust me. I’m a PIO, so it’s perfectly understandable that reporters would want to verify anything I tell them. However, I do expect to be treated with common courtesy. I view my job as helping reporters get the information they need to write a story. Rude, confrontational behavior not only makes it more difficult for me to understand what a reporter needs, but is pointlessly offensive. What’s more, demanding information from me does not magically give me access to information I do not have. If I say I don’t know the answer to a question, it means I don’t know. If I say I’m trying to find the answer to a question, then that’s what I’m doing. You may choose to not believe me, but even if I were lying, you have nothing to gain by becoming combative.
Give me time to find an expert, and be understanding if I can’t find one. If it’s 4 p.m. on Friday, I’m going to have a hard time finding a particular expert, much less convincing them to talk to a reporter. So, if you only give me 30 minutes to find the relevant expert, you’ll probably be out of luck. Please feel free to try – sometimes I can pull a rabbit out of a hat – but, in general, the more lead time you can give me, the more likely I’ll be to find the right person. [Note: And, yes, if the best expert I can think of works at another institution, I will steer you to that person.]
Have a basic understanding of where I work
I work at a large university. If you factor in all of the faculty, staff and students, it consists of about 40,000 people. That’s larger than my hometown. In an organization that large, there are often events, people – and occasionally entire centers – that I’ve never heard of. I’ve had reporters lambaste me for not being familiar with a particular project. I will always do my best to hunt down whatever information a reporter needs, but it’s simply not possible for me to know what all of our researchers are up to at any given time.
In addition, because it is a university, it can be difficult to track people down. Faculty members divide their time between office, classroom and lab. They may be on sabbatical. They may be spending time with their families. But, and here’s the thing, I don’t have any way of knowing where a specific researcher is at any given point in time. They could be at a conference in Oslo or they could be at the dentist. I’ll try to find out and let you know as quickly as possible, but often that takes a frustratingly long time. Trust me, I feel your pain on this one.
I’m not an expert
Please understand that I’m not an expert on every paper I write about. I work with psychologists, materials scientists, entomologists, computer scientists, and microbial ecologists, among others. If I’m the point of contact on a research news item, it means that I’m familiar with the paper and have talked to the researchers about it. I wrote a news release or blog post about the work, which was reviewed and approved by the researchers. But that’s not the same thing as having a thorough working knowledge of the research. For that reason, I am rarely comfortable answering in-depth questions about the work. If you have general questions, I’ll try to answer to the best of my ability – but the people you really need to talk to are the researchers who actually did the work.
Give me honest feedback
If I send you a pitch that you think is crap, please let me know. I try to avoid sending people pitches that are off-topic, so if I’m pitching you a story, it’s because I genuinely think you’ll find it interesting. If I’m wrong, please let me know – tell me if you don’t cover that subject, or if you only want to know about findings that are close to clinical use or a final market application. And tell me if you don’t ever want to get a pitch from me for any reason. I’m happy to oblige. Your feedback will make it easier for me to send pitches on story ideas that you might actually like – or, if you ask, I will stop pitching you altogether.
By the same token, if I’m doing something right, something that makes your job easier, please let me know. I want to correct the things I may be doing wrong, but it’s also good to get reinforcement about the things I’m doing right.
Bonus points: I know reporters have a lot on their plates, and often have to-do lists a mile long. But it’s always great when a reporter shoots me a note (and a link) letting me know that a story has been published.