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All the spaces in between:
A new paradigm for public affairs

By Marilyn Smith

If you suggested giving a master key to the most social inmate as a new paradigm controlling access in a penitentiary, you'd be sure to raise a few eyebrows. And so it was when Rick Borchelt addressed a crowded room during a Communicating Science Symposium session at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

It's a safe bet that every member of Borchelt's audience knew the best way to become the most mysterious (read: least trusted) person in your institution is to put 'Public Information Officer (PIO)' behind your name. Immediately, people will begin to avoid you. In-house scientists, who all have at least one story about being burned by the media, will peg you as an interloper whose true allegiance is to the fifth estate. Journalists trying to reach vital sources will file your number under 'G' for gatekeeper and forever believe that you are so overpaid, you have no choice but to toe the company line. How effective can you be when nobody [where is the rest of this sentence?]

Borchelt is currently in the Office of Science, US Department of Energy. He doesn't shy away from suggesting that the ever-present identity crisis of the PIO is at least partially self-inflicted. The problem, he says, is that no one really understands what PIOs do and for whom they do it. And it's way past time the profession did something to clear things up.

"When you say, 'I do public relations', that's not a particularly apt discussion of what you do," says Borchelt. "It outlines that you create linkages amongst all these different communities -- scientists, journalists, senior management, your audiences -- but it doesn't answer the question of who you work for. Whose interests do you represent?"

Take the classic case of suggesting to a scientist that she needs to make things clearer for the audience. The scientist will take that as a sure sign that you are working for the other side -- the reporters, the public, the donors. Alternatively, should you be in the unfortunate position of being a PIO with a science background, the discourse will be in the other direction. The other side will know that you would gladly give up your ISDN line in the name of protecting the science.

What the PIO lacks, according to Borchelt, is a portfolio. Consider the fact that no one asks the Chief Information Officer or the Development Officer what they do: they all know one manages information and the other looks after donors, grants and incoming contracts. But how do you frame the roles and responsibilities of the PIO in terms of a portfolio? Even the title of Borchelt's new book, And All the Spaces in Between: The Changing Roles of Institution-based Science Communicators, hints that there is no easy way to reflect the fact that PIOs primarily build bridges amongst all the people involved in the community of science.

"How do you explain to senior management that what I do is bring this all together to make science communication happen?" asks Borchelt. "The current story telling emphasizes a one-dimensional role for the PIO [which limits the PIO to a single allegiance]. In fact, success in this role requires us to adopt a new paradigm. It's a paradigm that I'm calling the Trust Portfolio."

Borchelt draws upon the extensive research of Jim and Lauri Grunig (University of Maryland) to help define the three main elements of the trust portfolio: credibility, integrity and dependability. Admittedly, each element is multi-faceted and must be managed on both personal and institutional levels.

For the PIO, the fundamental question regarding credibility is this: Do your publics (senior managers, scientists, reporters, the community, legislators who will define next year's budget) believe you have the sophistication and expertise needed to do the job? It's a hard-earned but critical quality.

Managing institutional credibility is a little trickier. Most publics perceive most scientists as highly credible. But the higher you go in the organization, the less likely people are to believe the speaker actually knows what to do with the widget on his desk.

"What is the typical experience in telling the story at the institutional level with respect to trust portfolio management?" asks Borchelt. "We take the top administrators - who have already been identified as political figures with the attending credibility baggage that presents - and rewrite our best stories in a way that is palatable for those people. That's problematic for those of us who are managing a trust portfolio."

The next challenge is convincing your publics that you have integrity - that you will do the right thing by them. Of course, they will all have different opinions about what the right thing is. Scientists need to know that you will direct their story to the right media. Journalists need to know that you won't pitch a story with fundamental flaws. Moreover, you publics need to know that your institution supports your integrity, that someone else won't overrule your commitment to do the right thing.

"It gets harder at the institutional level because there are often disagreements amongst the parties about what constitutes integrity," says Borchelt. "When we talk from the scientists' perspective, integrity is centred around issues of absolute truth or the ability to be able to document facts. Another group may be more concerned with other issues such as environmental responsibility or corporate citizenship."

Finally, dependability: Can you be trusted to always do the right thing? Are you credible, do you know what is the right thing to do, and will you always do it? This is perhaps the most difficult element to manage, primarily because some publics believe institutional forces purposely block individual attempts to do the right thing. Journalists know institutions will hold research results until they have the appropriate patents. The public believes organizations will sit on information about environmental contamination until the next funding cycle is finished.

Rough estimates suggest up to 70 per cent of the ink expended on science stories flows not from the pens of mainstream media but from institutional-based communicators writing for institute-sponsored publications. That figure provides a strong case for the establishment of a trust portfolio. Borchelt argues that, because of their interstitial (all the spaces in between) position, PIOs are uniquely capable of managing it. But he also emphasizes that the granting of the portfolio must be backed with authority, empowerment, and recognition.

"Those of us who do public affairs in an institutional setting need to go to our managers and spell it out," say Borchelt. "We need to say, 'This is my job. I manage the trust relationships with all our important audiences. That means the kinds of things that I can do to manage the trust portfolio must be clearly understood by all parties. It also means I have to have the authority to do it, I have to have the power to do it, and I have to be able to be at the table when decisions that affect it are made.'"

After all, says Borchelt, communicating science is not just a matter of getting the information out in whatever form benefits the institution. It is a commitment to public understanding of science and technology.

"The PIO is not a gate-keeping role, it is a dialogue inducing role - that's a big difference," says Borchelt. "Institutions don't have the resources to have one person responsible for each audience. There needs to be someone with an institutional perspective that can manage that entire portfolio in a way that best benefits all the audiences and the institution collaboratively."

In closing, Borchelt highlighted current hiring practices as a serious impediment to getting trust portfolio in the right hands. Many research institutes have a tendency to pipeline people with no background in journalism or public relations into junior PR positions. Even more worrisome is the conversion of top level PIO career slots to political appointment slots.

"The net result is that the person who is managing this trust portfolio at the top level of the institution gets there through the experience of a political campaign," says Borchelt. "I think that is a particularly difficult role from which to learn to manage a trust portfolio."

Hiring practices have little to do with how desperately scientists want to generate public understanding and support for their work. But they do reflect a fundamental disconnect between how institutions identify and recruit people into public affairs positions and what they expect those people to achieve. In recognizing the true value of the PIO's expertise and experience, Borchelt's paradigm offers a more workable solution for everyone involved in communicating science.

 



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