Ask TON: Using PIOs to Hunt Stories



Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:

“I’d like to make better use of university public information officers to find ideas for features and front-of-book stories for magazines. What is the best way to do this?”

Kelly Tyrrell, science writer, University of Wisconsin–Madison:

First, a disclaimer: Not all university public information officers—or offices—are created equal. However, dwindling are the days of smiling public relations people, eager to “sell” you the newest breakthrough, the latest discovery.

Many PIOs—myself included—actually came from a news/journalism past, defectors from an atrophied industry. A growing number also come from science, offering perspectives that PIOs of the past may not have possessed. Most just want to help researchers with good stories to share connect with good reporters willing to tell them.

Reach out to institutions you trust, or PIOs you’ve had good experiences with, and let them know your interests or what you’re working on. Ask to be notified when they come across a story or study or researcher they think you might be interested in. Sign up for specific institutional news releases, check their news sites often. The quality of these stories is often quite high, given the former journalists now writing them.

If you’re close to a good research university, ask the PIOs to send you information about public research talks on campus—which are typically free and offer instant access to the source—and events sponsored or hosted by the university.

In general, the best way to make better use of university PIOs is to view them as your allies in connecting to good stories. Of course, if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out, but university PIOs know where some of the best material lies and most are eager to help you find it.

Jeremy Manier, news director, University of Chicago:

My office is always game to help reporters develop features or pretty much any kind of story, and we do our own share for the university’s homepage and alumni magazine. When I was a science reporter at the Trib, I relied a lot on developing a rapport with various PIOs so that they would come to me with good ideas. Quite often you can get a spark for a different story from the casual chitchat that you do in the course of a call or a visit. We also sometimes do this in a more formal way—a reporter or editor will email asking what we might have that would fit a certain kind of format, and then it’s open season for our staff to offer their best ideas. We have experienced writers and journalists on staff, as do most major research universities, so if you get us talking and thinking long enough you’re likely to find an idea worth pursuing. Another valuable service PIOs can offer is letting reporters know which faculty members are good fonts of story ideas, even if the story is not about them. As many science writers know, it can be a great stroke of luck to find a researcher who is willing to grab coffee or just chat on the phone about ideas. We can help advise on how to make that connection with specific people.

Kevin Krajick, senior science writer, the Earth Institute / Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University:

First, figure out which institutions do the kind of work you gravitate to. Then contact the PIO(s) and give them a sense of your interests—topics, ideas, and places in the world you would like to cover. If you have a website, send it along; a quick perusal of your bio and stories will give him/her a sense of what you like writing about. The more specific you are about what you’re after, the better the chance you’ll get an exclusive pitch.

Before taking on a job as a university public information officer, I worked many years as a magazine editor and freelance writer. So my view is admittedly biased, but I tend to think that the most effective PIOs are those who are journalists themselves—not marketing or PR people. That person thinks like you do: they know how to find out stuff, they understand what makes a good—and saleable—story, and they know how to pitch it to an editor (or to you). Talk with someone like this, and you will often come away with all kinds of ideas. Check in once in a while: phone in, go to lunch, or even ask if they can arrange a tour of the institution. The more they hear from you, the more they will think of you when something that seems right comes up.

By the way, I hate it when someone just calls out of the blue and says: “So, what’s new and interesting at the Earth Institute?” I usually just ask that person to maybe take a look at one or more of our websites, and get back to me with any germ of an idea that may inspire. (Is there a particular researcher who intrigues you? Are you looking to hitch a ride on some cool climate-expedition in the Arctic? Do you want to meet the world’s swingingest young palynologist?) It pays to come in with some knowledge of the place, and specific questions as a starting point.

Contact with a good PIO is essentially a conversation between two people who both have the same goal: finding and telling stories that need to be told.

Jeff Grabmeier, director of research communications, Ohio State University:

Did I tell you about the time that one of our researchers received a call from the security department of his credit card company? They were concerned because someone used his card to purchase dozens of voodoo dolls online. Well, it turns out our researcher did buy the dolls—for a study. A little tidbit like this may not be enough by itself for a feature story, but we PIOs come across a lot of interesting facts and ideas that we can’t use. In most cases, I would be glad to share with reporters. In the day-to-day grind, I may not think to call you, or even remember to mention these ideas if you contact me about a different topic. What would be most useful is to set up a dedicated time to talk, by phone or in person, where I can find out about your interests and we can brainstorm about possible features and front-of-book stories. It is really a matter of making the time and helping me to learn exactly what you’re looking for.

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