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Volume 17, Issue 8 p. 474-475
Exploring Ecological Careers
Free Access

In the space between: public information officers in science

Bethann Garramon Merkle

Corresponding Author

Bethann Garramon Merkle

Wyoming Migration Initiative, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY

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Marty Downs

Marty Downs

Network Office, Long Term Ecological Research Network, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA

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Annaliese Hettinger

Annaliese Hettinger

STEAM Communication Consulting

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First published: 01 October 2019

As a naïve young researcher at the Marine Biological Laboratory, I watched with surprise and distress as scientists tried to share facts and uncertainties about the court-mandated move of Boston's sewage outfall pipe into Cape Cod Bay. They faced a group of angry, distrustful protesters who feared that the move would destroy an ecosystem they depended on for enjoyment, recreation, renewal – and their livelihoods. These scientists loved Cape Cod Bay just as much as the protesters, but their information fell on deaf ears. I resolved then to learn the communications skills needed to bridge those kinds of divides. – MD

The moments that led up to such a career transition were different for each of us. Whether we carved a wandering path or a direct one to science communication, all three of us shared a desire to connect with people and place science in a societal context. We have found the role of public information officer (PIO) a fulfilling way to do so. The PIO is a communicator whose role is to promote and explain the work of an institution, government agency, or non-governmental organization (NGO). To some, the word “promotion” smacks of hype and spin. It's certainly true that PIOs choose the most interesting and important stories to share, but we're also keenly aware that our efficacy is contingent upon the trust of the communities we represent, the media, and citizens.

Science PIOs fill a space between scientists and journalists – and increasingly, between scientists and public audiences more directly. Rather than focusing deeply on one area of science, we are constantly scanning the horizon, searching for stories that will catch the attention of our audiences and showcase the accomplishments of our employers or clients. As a result, scientists collaborating with PIOs gain considerably from the PIO's skillset, experience, and contacts. By working with a good PIO, a researcher can position their work to have real societal impact, far beyond what they could achieve alone.

Once upon a time, the “classic” PIO would work for a university or other large institution. They primarily wrote press releases and pitched them to reporters (Figure 1). Their most important skills were: (1) getting the science right (to maintain the trust of the scientists whose work they represented), (2) maintaining relationships with reporters (so journalists would take their calls), and (3) telling a good story (so their press releases would stand out from the pack).

Details are in the caption following the image
PIOs help arrange press interviews, such as this one, in which National Public Radio's Dan Charles interviews Harvard Forest LTER researcher Julian Hadley about his work measuring carbon sequestration in hemlock forests.D Foster

PIO roles have broadened considerably in recent years. With dedicated newspaper science sections nearly extinct (Morrison 2013) – and even the number of general newsroom employees declining by 47% over the past 14 years (Pew Research Center on Journalism and the Media 2019) – science reporters are no longer the main channel for reaching public audiences. Social media and content marketing have transformed the landscape. Now, a PIO may also be a social media strategist, videographer, digital producer, or in-house editor whose work reaches audiences directly. A PIO may work in a role akin to writer/editor, producer, or coach. The degree of editorial freedom a PIO enjoys varies widely, depending on where and how they work.

The diversity of institutions and organizations employing PIOs has also grown. Units within universities may have their own PIOs. Independent research organizations may have a communications team to manage a website, write and produce stories and videos, or even to publish a magazine. Professional societies employ PIOs who promote the science their members do, the meetings they organize, and the causes they embrace. In government agencies and businesses, the job is similar to that of a university PIO but may entail greater emphasis on explaining the science behind decisions and safeguarding the credibility of the organization. At the Boston Public Health Commission, for instance, MD was called on to explain to wary city residents the importance of a measles quarantine and the rationale for collecting demographic data in hospitals. NGOs have as many roles for PIOs as the organizations have purposes. A PIO might write op-eds and fact sheets to advocate for protected areas, explain what is (or is not) risky about GMOs, or detail how to best manage private lands for biodiversity.

In small organizations, a single PIO will typically do everything that is vaguely communications-related, including learning about new discoveries from scientists and coaching the researchers for media appearances; writing and editing web content and press releases; capturing and editing photographs and video; handling social media feeds; teaching science communications; and even developing advertising content and buying ads. Sometimes, PIOs handle crisis communications, event management, policy engagement, or outreach (eg BGM creates illustrations, educational materials, and animations and is developing a children's book for a research group). For an adventurous generalist, these positions can be a great opportunity to try one's hand at different kinds of work.

In larger organizations, PIOs may do any of the above, but as part of a communications team, they will usually specialize – either by communications channel (social media, print, broadcast, or publications) or by audience (direct public engagement, media relations, scientific community, or policy engagement). Freelancers may be hired by any of these organizations to write press releases, develop web content, and perform other such tasks. A PIO's work may also include any combination of fundraising, developing and managing budgets, and recruiting and supervising a communications team.

Many skills developed as an ecologist can be good preparation for a PIO position but they are only the beginning. WebPanel 1 contains many suggestions for training and professional development opportunities. Writing well, with a focus on accessible language, is essential but the work also requires considering multiple points of view – including those of policy makers, other researchers, or even skeptics – and asking the questions those readers would want to ask, if they had access to the scientists. At the same time, the inside view that PIOs often have suggests stories and framings that readers less familiar with the science might overlook. Perhaps the most important (and difficult) skill for a PIO is to think with a “beginner's mind” and ask questions that may seem foolish or obvious. Doing so often leads to the most interesting and accessible stories.

In every role, a PIO must have a good understanding of the process of science and communication. While deep knowledge of a discipline may get a foot in the door in some institutions, a PIO's job is not to know the science. Rather, it is to recognize and tell good science stories, and to know when a story, even if scientifically important, may not merit a press release.

Training in science journalism can now be found in several excellent master's programs, but very few of these focus on the whole package of skills required to excel as a PIO. Instead, aspiring PIOs should try to cultivate message management, multimedia storytelling, and policy engagement skills, gleaning these from more specialized opportunities in journalism, policy, marketing, and nonprofit management. Most professional PIO job opportunities will be advertised on higher education, science writing, and communications listservs (see WebPanel 1 for examples), but job titles will vary; the titles communications officer, communications director, and media relations specialist are common synonyms for PIO.

To get a foot in the door, aspiring PIOs will need to provide samples of writing for non-specialists. University press offices, lab or departmental websites, and even student or local news outlets offer good opportunities to gain experience. Some entities will have small budgets to support freelance work and internships. An equally important consideration is to find a good editor who likes to teach. Effective external editing is a powerful route to enhancing writing skills.

Whether coming from science (as MD has), or from communications and education (as BGM did), being a PIO provides opportunities to stretch our brains around enormously challenging concepts and see the key click in the lock when we make them understandable to others. PIOs get to bring attention to science that is both delightful and important; to taste the best, most interesting moments of scientific discovery; and – every now and then – to help connect communities.


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    Bethann Garramon Merkle Wyoming Migration Initiative, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY

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    Marty Downs Network Office, Long Term Ecological Research Network, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA

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    Annaliese Hettinger STEAM Communication Consulting