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Publicly Relating:

Notes from the Public Relations Committee
Carlos M. Ratter

  • Your paper has finally been accepted by Science, and reporters are already calling, even though the issue won't be out for two weeks.

  • Your archaeological project has just uncovered the largest find in your part of the world, and the press is already snooping around.

  • A site in your area was just badly vandalized, and reporters are calling and knocking on your door for comments and suggestions.

  • When you are faced with one of these situations, you do not have to face the onslaught of publicity by yourself. If you are part of a college, university, federal agency, or museum, chances are that there is a public information officer (PIO) who is ready and willing to help you handle the situation. Dealing with the press and explaining and interpreting research are that person's job. PIOs routinely work with researchers and produce news releases on research and events for the local and national press. Knowing who they are and having them know you can be valuable when a problematic situation arises.

    Most experienced PIOs should be able to help with logistical problems. Even if you are an old hand at answering questions about your most recent paper or excavation, there are things that PIOs can do for you. They can screen telephone calls so that reporters receive a copy of your paper, and calls are prioritized before you deal with them, saving you time and effort. They can make arrangements for parking passes, television uplinks, courier service, and a myriad of things that reporters and producers expect and that you may not think about. At an archaeological site, a well-briefed PIO can herd reporters where you want them to go. Most PIOs know the local press very well, and they can suggest the best approach if you are concerned about accuracy or have information that you absolutely want to get into the story. PIOs also know which reporters can and cannot be trusted; every profession has its bad apples and being forewarned is being forearmed.

    If you are lucky enough to have a science writer on the public information staff, make it a point to meet him or her. Science writers are used to working from scientific papers and will not be put off by statistics or technical information. Their job is to translate information from science to English, and they know what the public can understand and how to approach a topic. They also likely know most of the science journalists in the United States--it is a rather small field. A science writer can assist you with the production of an accurate news release for the local press, who tend to have difficulty with scientific information. If the information in a release is accurate and easy to understand, you will have fewer questions to answer, and you will be confident about the information provided. If you have a press release for "the largest archaeological find in your part of the world," the news release can provide the cultural and scientific rationale behind the excavation and perhaps avoid stories that only focus on beautiful artifacts or monumental buildings without any context for your work.

    So, if that Science paper will be published in two weeks, you can avoid a lot of wasted time by speaking with the public information office's science writer, providing a copy of your paper, and making time for a short interview. In fact, it is better if you do this when the paper is accepted, because the science writer can then plug into an entire network of prepublication publicity that is organized by science journals (e.g., Nature and Science send information to science reporters before the publication date).

    PIOs can also help with news releases on vandalized or pothunted sites. PIOs can often pre-arrange a visit to a site with the assurance that the location will not be published. They can help create a sympathetic ear for saving irreplaceable resources and work with reporters to produce a story that not only reports the destruction but also explains, for example, why modern graffiti on a pictograph wall is worse than the same graffiti on a bus station wall.

    Remember, no matter what the story, you probably will be famous only for Andy Warhol's equivalent of 15 minutes. Even the most phenomenal story dies a natural death within a week, with requests for follow-up stories trickling in over the next few weeks. During the brief feeding frenzy of news gathering, PIOs can be helpful sources. They have all been through this before and know what to expect. They can help you avoid some of the pitfalls and perhaps let you enjoy your brief time in the limelight.

    Andrea Elyse Messer is a science and research information officer at Pennsylvania State University.

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