One of the most surprising lessons I learned as a young PIO was the value of sending a journalist who phones looking for a source to a competing institution. This is some advice that those higher up the hierarchy probably won’t want to hear so you might have to be a bit sneaky. I like to be subversive when it gets the job done better than otherwise.
Suppose you work in some university that is competing for funding, grants, and students with other universities or colleges in the same geographical area, or in the same field of research. Surely it could only be a bad plan to send a journalist off to chat to one of those competitors.
It IS a bad idea if you live only in the present of this phone call. But to be an effective PIO means building long-term relationships that are useful for both your institution and that of the journalist.
Now suppose a journalist is calling asking for an expert on, say, protease inhibitors because they heard about a story published by an overseas university about a new drug that seems quite important. You might have a great institution doing lots of good pharmacology, but you don’t have anybody right there at the moment who would be ideal for this call.
You have plenty of biologists who could talk about protease inhibitors in general but they’re not experts in the pharmacology. Your rival institution, however, does have somebody so you suggest the journalist call them, but if they need background on the biology, point out that they could talk to your person and pass on their direct number.
Have you just cost your institution a media clip? Perhaps. But maybe that other expert isn’t around and you have the backup person. So maybe you get the clip after all.
Much more importantly, you have just demonstrated your credibility very clearly to the journalist and they got the information they needed.
Suppose you’re the journalist. Who are you going to call the next time you need to cover a biomedical story? You’re calling the institution that seems guaranteed to give you what you need. They’ll either get a source on the spot or be directed somewhere useful.
As a PIO you win overall because you build your reputation and relationship, by offering honest and useful information. You also get the next call from that journalist and you might have exactly the right person to help them out.
Update–Oct 11, 2010: While having a beer with a journalist, talking about this project, he looked at the headlines of my pieces and seeing this one said immediately, “Anybody who does this goes straight to the top of my list of VIP contacts.”