Ed Yong, of Not Exactly Rocket Science tells a tale of a PIO who shows exactly how not to do a good job and has just managed to damage his own reputation and that of his institution without even getting a story out of it.
Ed did not name the offending PIO to avoid accidentally breaking any embargo but Ivan Oransky, of Embargo Watch, was happy to fill in the missing details including the name of the offending PIO, the University of Manchester’s Aeron Haworth.
All PIOs should read both posts as a case study of what not to do. In brief, Ed asked for contact information for the author and the data for a peer-reviewed feature-type piece in the Lancet. Haworth refused to provide either telling Ed he had more than enough material for his blog.
Just to make it even clearer, let me list the ways in which the PIO erred.
1. By treating a journalist writing on a blog different to a journalist writing for traditional media
2. By caring more about his own CV and his sense of rightness than the needs of a journalist
3. By caring how long a story might be
4. By not providing readily available information
5. By deciding what information a journalist needs
6. By acting as a block between journalist and research author
7. By accusing a journalist of anything (in this case of being patronising)
8. By being patronising
That is a pretty impressive list of sins in one case but unfortunately it’s still far too common. As PIOs, we improve our performance by both seeing examples of good work by other PIOs and also by seeing poor performance as a cautionary tales. This is most definitely a great learning experience in the latter case.
Update: Read the comment threads on Ivan Oransky’s post for an example of how to keeping digging a hole and how not to behave as a PIO.
Update: You can read over a selection of twitter commentary in the Storify collection below.
Update: Now that the event has been closed with Haworth’s apology and Yong’s acceptance, it is worth considering how the whole matter might have been salvaged a little faster.
In the end, Haworth did the right thing by apologizing. We all act in error at times and often the only solution is to take it on the chin and apologize, even if we believe we’re not truly at fault.
Part of being a PIO is putting ego aside and allowing the world to flow along along, with us floating with it, doing the best we can to budge the stream in one direction or another. When the flow feels like a deluge, it is tempting to try to anchor ourselves but that never works in the long run. It’s hard to do and only makes more visible ripples.
Overall, what might Haworth have done differently? He might have apologized earlier. He was clearly busy and perhaps didn’t put enough thought into his initial response. Once the matter turned sour, however, the only person who could have done something to stop the web phenomenon we witnessed was Haworth himself, by apologizing sooner.
The whole matter is unfortunate but still very instructive. We must all remember that we are in service to journalists as much as we don’t like to be subservient. When there is mutual respect we all get our jobs done a lot better.