Between scientists and journalists, the PIO

Handbook for Science Public Information Officers by W. Matthew Shipman, 2015. The University of Chicago Press.

This book had been on my ‘to-read’ list for years, though it kept getting bumped down by other books. Partly this was because the ebook was the same price as the paperback, which I find off-putting in any book. The slim eight-chapter volume is a fantastic guide to writing about science. Not only will it aid any Public Information Officer who reads it, but it could help scientists understand what they can get out of a PIO when they want publicity for a paper.

It was evident that I should have read this book far sooner when I was halfway through chapter one. I was picking up helpful tips that soon. The chapters break down the job into smaller tasks, so the first three chapters are Finding stories, Writing stories, and Pitching stories. Other chapters introduce multimedia and metrics. The closing chapter is the one no one wants to refer to: crisis communications.

What makes the book stand out is that it is very much about the Public Information Officer role. Shipman is clear that this is a distinctly different job to journalism. It’s something you also see on his blog. But while a PIO is not a journalist, he’s clear that they do not work in an ethical vacuum. For example, here’s the key point in the Crisis Communications chapter:

“The single most important thing to remember in crisis communication, especially if someone at your institution is at fault, is to be honest. I once asked a crisis communication specialist what the key was to handling crisis communication efforts effectively. His response was succinct, so I will repeat it verbatim: ‘Own your shit.’ Do not try to cover it up. Do not lie about it. Do not try to explain why ‘it really wasn’t that bad.’ All of those things will just make it worse.”

The above was written before 2016, but it would be nice to think that it’s still a standard to aspire to. That kind of clarity is found throughout the book. Even the opening chapter gives selfish reasons for scientists to want to promote their work. The book is realistic where you’ll run into problems with communication and where you may have to accept it’s an imperfect world.

As well as PIOs, I can see this book being useful for science bloggers, who can be in a spectrum between PIOs and journalists. It can also be useful for scientists. A busy PIO might not understand why it’s important that a body gets prominent credit for a piece of equipment or data set if it appears tangential to the story. Understanding what your PIO is looking for in a story might help you find a hook for getting the important details out. The project looked to have suffered a fatal blow when a freak monsoon wrecked several of the team’s laptops. Fortunately, Bruce at Another University was able to supply a backup of critical measurements they allowed the team to make sense of their results…

In short, if you’re planning to blog regularly, this would be an excellent book to read. It’s certainly going to change how I work with scientists.

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.

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