PR pros: Top five ways to work better with scientists

This weekend I attended “Covering the Ohio River Valley: A Convergence of Media and Scientists,” a two-day conference on how to build better relationships between journalists and scientists. As a publicist, a lot of what was discussed applied to how I do my job, except I have it a lot easier than journalists. While it’s my job to work directly with my sources – to fashion quotes, focus on the positive, ask specifically worded questions to get certain answers, etc – it isn’t that of journalists. You can imagine that when a scientist asks to see an article before going to print, it doesn’t bode well with a journalist. Just the opposite for PR professionals – we want to double-check our work with our sources, over and over, until it’s perfect. At least I do. If I can conquer scientists, I can conquer to the world.

I’m going to do a more in-depth article, but in the meantime, a quick list of the most important tips I learned, from a PR prospective:

1) Do your research about the scientist and her/his research before you make that call or send that e-mail. Yep, you’re right – often I have no idea what the hell a scientist is talking about, especially when jargon is used. Pretend a pitch-stage interview is a college assignment you need to brush up on. Don’t go in knowing nothing!

2) Make sure, if at all feasible, you give your source more than a few hours notice before a deadline. Make it more like a few days. My boyfriend is a scientist, and he’s a busy dude. They all are. Those left-brainers can get into their zones and it’s hard to get them out. Don’t ask them to come out of their zones unless you’re going to give them time to prepare properly.

3) Understand that a scientist’s research is her/his child, and respect it as such. Even if you don’t understand it. Or think it’s being too loud in the grocery store.

4) Swallow your pride…let a scientist review her/his quote, review any paraphrasing, or for God’s sake, just let them read the entire article or pitch. It’s no skin off our back. In fact, it’ll save any embarrassment or aggravation down the road. If a published article comes out with an error, at least you’ll know it wasn’t because of any mistakes or misunderstandings on your end of the pitch.

5) Ask questions! If you’re in the middle of an interview and you have no clue what’s being said, ask. Your source will appreciate it. Repeat what you think you’ve heard. Take baby steps. It sounds juvenile, but it isn’t. Nuances are the lifeblood of science and research. Get one thing wrong and you’re reputation is going to suffer; it might even affect the scientist in a negative way. PR is all about building relationships.

3 thoughts on “PR pros: Top five ways to work better with scientists

  1. Annabel Girard says:

    Asking a question and then telling the scientist what you think she/he said is critical. Scientific terms are more than jargon. They mean something to other scientists. Being able to explain a scientific principle or fact public is critical if the general public is to gain an understanding a new product or a local environmental problem. From one who has been married to a chemist for 40 years and who covered several environmental issues while a reporter.

    • abbymalikpr says:

      Hi Annabel! I completely agree. If a story is done incorrectly or conveys the wrong/false message, more harm can be done than good. And you touch on such a good point when you say “They mean something to other scientists.” Scientists, as you know, are peer reviewed, not just in journals but in everything they do, so to speak. So if an article in a popular outlet is misleading or wrong, it’s going to make the scientist look bad to her/his peers. There’s a lot at stake, and it’s quite an art to balance it all!

  2. Annabel Girard says:

    I had to learn that when a scientific article said “significant results,” it did not mean they were really important. — it had to do with the process of calculating the results. (I’ve even forgotten the precise language now.) I used to get so excited when I saw that term, but I quickly learned not to.

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