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  Geotimes - August 2007 - Comment

Say hello to your PIO
Harvey Leifert

Do you know your PIO? Wait, don’t turn the page — there are no more pages. If you don’t know what a PIO is or how one can help you, let’s chat. A public information officer (PIO), sometimes called a communications officer, is a science writer. PIOs work at universities, national laboratories, research institutes and scientific societies. They summarize the jargon-laden science of a research paper in comprehensible English and explain the significance of what scientists have discovered in terms nonscientists can understand.

It is now well-accepted that scientists must not only conduct research, write peer-reviewed papers and make presentations to their colleagues at meetings, they must also participate in various outreach activities to the larger community. The reasons include a sense of moral obligation, the formal requirements of many grants and recognition that the public pays for most research and should know what it gets for its money.

When I joined the American Geophysical Union (AGU) as public information manager in 1998, outreach was not as well-established as a professional responsibility. Younger scientists generally got it; they willingly participated in press conferences and cooperated in reviewing press release drafts for accuracy. Some had undergone “media training” — short courses in effective interview techniques.

Among older, more established scientists, however, the picture was a bit different. Some were as eager to help and as understanding of the value of outreach via the media as their younger colleagues. Occasionally, though, I encountered what I call the “Sagan caution.” Carl Sagan had taught astrophysics and other sciences to hundreds of millions worldwide via award-winning TV series and books. To eager lay audiences, he was a rockstar, and he inspired more than a few youngsters to pursue a career in science.

In some scientific quarters, though, there was a distinct sniffing about Sagan’s putting himself forward in the public arena, instead of just making discoveries through his telescope and publishing them in journals. Sagan’s cool reception among many colleagues was a cautionary tale for scientists approached to assist high visibility outreach projects, even a decade later. Beyond this constraint, outreach programs offered no incentive to scientists in terms of income, academic promotion, tenure or winning new grants.

That attitude evolved over the past decade, fortunately, and today it is scarcely an issue. Most scientists now respond, often with alacrity, to requests from PIOs to do an interview, review a press release draft or participate in a press conference. Renowned researchers field reporters’ questions with aplomb.

Still, it appears that few scientists take initiatives in this area. PIOs have to ferret out news of exciting research conducted on their own campuses, or they learn about it when an enterprising reporter asks for details. Want to see a PIO faint? Just drop by your university’s communications office and say, “You might be interested in what we have learned about the subduction zone just off the coast.”

Leaders of some scientific societies also have to be convinced of the value of outreach programs. In 2003, AGU met jointly with the European Geophysical Society (EGS) and the European Union of Geosciences (EUG) in Nice, France. EGS and EUG held annual meetings, but had not made any serious attempt to attract reporters to cover them. Their directors thought that any effort in this direction would be futile. I pointed out that a fair number of European reporters attend AGU’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Calif., every year; I could see no reason why they would not cover a comparable meeting in Europe.

AGU offered to set up a press room and organize press conferences, to which EGS and EUG agreed. We found space in an unused cocktail lounge, tucked under a theater in the bursting-at-the-seams Nice convention center. It featured dim lighting, purple carpeted walls, deep-cushioned sofas and a long (unstocked) bar — perhaps the most unlikely press room setting in the history of earth science meetings.

Science writers came, of course, around 50 of them, and they reported news from the meeting via the BBC, Le Figaro, Nature, Science, New Scientist, USA Today, German public radio, and many other media.

The relationship between earth scientists, PIOs and science journalists is overwhelmingly good. They see themselves and each other as trying to explain new discoveries and their implications to an interested public. Science writers rarely exhibit the adversarial tone often found between political reporters and politicians, and many of the best science writers have bulging Rolodexes, filled with names of researchers they know and upon whom they call when they need a quote or to verify a fact.

Sadly, though, fewer and fewer of the truly mass media (daily newspapers, radio and TV stations, general interest magazines) employ science writers, other than for health and medical news. A handful of local papers have a reporter who specializes in earth science, or any physical science. And forget about local TV stations. Your PIO knows who and where the science writers interested in your particular field of research are. They can help shape your latest mind-boggling journal paper into a catchy — and accurate — press release that will capture the interest of reporters and the public. Give it a try. Say hello to your PIO.

Leifert is a freelance science writer. From 1998 to 2007, he was AGU’s PIO. Prior to that, he was an overseas information officer and public affairs officer for the U.S. Information Agency. E-mail:

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