There’s an ingrained perception that journalists and public-affairs or public-information officers (PIOs for short) loathe each other, with reporters always pushing for more and PIOs always wanting to limit access. In my experience, it’s a mostly false impression: Smart and experienced reporters understand that PIOs can be useful translators for the institutions they represent, and are often the most direct or only way of reaching scientists and bureaucrats for interviews.
The relationship is never perfect: The two sides’ interests are not perfectly aligned, a reporter may be sloppy, a PIO may be a control freak. But in my unnervingly long experience as a journalist, my dealings with PIOs have been far more positive than negative. There are plenty of stories in my archives that only happened because a PIO took the initiative to point out an interesting piece of research I had missed, and plenty of times when a PIO assigned to me spent hours with me on the scene of a story — sometimes overnight, sometimes for days at a time.
But every once in a while, it goes so badly wrong. And for the past 48 hours or so, the science-writing blogosphere has been agog over a vast and expanding trainwreck of wrong.
It started like this. Ed Yong, proprietor of the Discover blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, related on his Posterous on Sunday that he had had an odd exchange with a PIO. Ed, in his telling, wanted to speak to the author of an embargoed journal article rather than relying on a press release, and the PIO, after supplying the article, refused to help any further. In fact, after lecturing Ed about the PIO’s former experience as a journalist, the PIO shut down the conversation, telling him: “I think you have all you need for a blog.”
To understand the full impact of that, you have to know a bit about Ed. First, he’s British, with the politeness that (usually) implies. Second, he is incredibly hardworking, publishing posts that usually run at least 1,000 words, and usually at night, after his day job ends. And, third and not least, he’s extremely smart, very skilled, unusually humble, and extremely generous to fellow bloggers in his own blog and on Twitter.
(Not to mention that last year he was awarded the Keck Futures Initiative Communication Award of the National Academies, which carries not only enormous prestige, but also a $20,000 check. So it’s not only fellow bloggers who think well of him.)
In his Posterous, Ed discreetly did not name the PIO or institution, in part to avoid breaking an embargo on the article itself. But at the blog Embargo Watch — which inquires into the barriers that embargoing the release of research put in the way of good journalism — co-founder Ivan Oransky, MD (in his day job, executive editor of Reuters Health) decided to look a little further. He put up a post Monday morning that explained why this episode was the latest in a series of bad decisions regarding embargoes that demonstrate how little good they accomplish: The press release that Ed had received, though embargoed, was describing a paper in the Lancet that had been released two days earlier. (Note, Ivan and I are friends and both serve on the board of the Association of Health Care Journalists, which on Monday formally objected to a new embargo policy at the FDA.) He also named the institution, the University of Manchester, and the PIO, Aeron Haworth.
And at that point, the wheels came off.
The discussion in the comments — which at this point is up to 145 166 and still climbing — began civilly enough, but took fire when Haworth replied to Ivan’s original post:
I have spent the past three days supplying information to journalists across the world about this story. It is only Mr Yong that appears to have taken issue. If he wasn’t so patronising towards PIOs then perhaps he would have received more cooperation.
This was bizarrely defensive, and also inaccurate, given that the original exchange with Ed shows him being respectful until taunted (and after that, still more civil than I would have been).
Now, one way to guarantee the attention of journalists is to attack one of us, especially unfairly. Senior science writers — Carl Zimmer, David Dobbs, Bora Zivkovic and John Fleck among others — commented. So did NYU professor and new-media god Jay Rosen; leading PIOs and communication consultants such as Ruth Seeley, Denise Graveline, and William Raillant-Clark; and a number of scientists (including some from the University of Manchester, one pleading “We’re not all that bad.”).
So far — posting under his real name and the name of his institution (British science writer and physician Ben Goldacre says he confirmed Haworth’s identity in an email exchange) — Haworth has called Ed Yong a “jumped-up arrogant journalist wannabe,” called a fellow PIO “a doormat,” threatened a PR consultant with a defamation suit, mocked the editor of a major science blog network, and joked, “At least none of you lot will ignore my next press release!”
The flame-out has — so far — been picked up by MediaBistro, the Gawker-network site i09.com, and Nature.com, which notes that Haworth is scheduled to conduct a “Top tips if you come face-to-face with a journalist” workshop on March 11.
Meanwhile, still at Embargo Watch — where the comments continue, though it’s late at night now in the UK — people have begun begging Haworth to stand down on behalf of his institution’s relationships with science journalists, standing in the new-media world, and identity, and his own reputation as well. Natural historian Chris Clarke of California pleaded, late this afternoon:
Aeron, I have been both a PIO and a journalist, and I’m also a bit long in the tooth, and I am telling you as one caring human being to another: for god’s sake, man, stop digging. You failed to recognize one of the UK’s top science writers, condescended to him, and are now compounding your error – for the entire world to view – by becoming more and more defensive. I’m not certain what sort of contract you have with your current employer: if it doesn’t run right up until you plan to retire, I would stop now, offer Ed an cordial apology for your initial mistake, and let the entire world move on. Otherwise, the name “Aeron Haworth” will become Google-synonymous with “doesn’t keep up with who’s writing in his field” and “needlessly unconstructive and insulting.”
Any comment, Manchester?
Update: David Harris, who was one of the commenters at Embargo Watch and operates (among other sites) the very smart The Enlightened PIO, collected the parallel Twitter convo over this trainwreck in a Storify. When you look at it, pause to consider: How many followers do all those commenters have? That’s how far this story spread.
Update 2: About 12 hours after I posted above, Ed Yong said (in the comments below and in this tweet) that Haworth has apologized to him privately. PIOs, PR consultants, is that sufficient?
Update 3: About 5 hours after the private apology, Haworth posted a public one, on Embargo Watch. Excerpt:
This morning, I apologised to Ed Yong, which he graciously accepted. I have been somewhat mortified by the comments above but, I guess, this is to be expected when you post knee-jerk, overly defensive comments on a blog site after a few glasses of wine. Never a good idea!
I work hard to promote science to the public and, you may have seen today, another story in the papers about the north-south health divide, which I have been dealing with for the past few days.
I’m a fairly private person, so this episode has upset me quite a lot. My own silly fault.
Anyway, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get back to my day job. Thanks for all your comments. I’ve taken them on board.