Coping with a Hyperstory: Lessons from a Biologist’s Ordeal

19 07 2010

Being inundated by a “hyperstory” that attracts white-hot media attention can be disconcerting and even traumatizing for researchers used to the

Samantha Joye

Samantha Joye coped with a tidal wave of media

relative anonymity of the laboratory and the seminar room.  The best recent example is that of University of Georgia biologist Samantha Joye’s experience when her research revealed the presence of underwater oil plumes in the Gulf of Mexico during the BP oil spill. Her communication response, and that of the university’s news service, offers lessons in how scientists and their institutions should—and should not—handle a hyperstory.  Joye’s research and experience with the media were covered in a July 2, 2010, Science Magazine article by Erik Stokstad. I should emphasize that my critique of this case is in no way meant as a criticism of the competence or professionalism of Joye or the university’s news service. Nobody who has not found themselves inundated by a hyperstory could possibly get everything right the first time in terms of communications. Also, I could not know the politics, and organizational and resource limitations, that would affect the university’s communication response.

With those caveats in mind, first the apparent missteps:

  • According to the Science article when Joye first recognized the existence of the underwater plume, she tipped off New York Times reporter Justin Gillis, who wrote a story that was published on May 15. Giving such an exclusive might seem logical to a media-naive scientist, since a Times story would more likely be accurate. But it was a poor decision for two reasons: first it shut out the huge cadre of other media covering the story, which invariably generates ill feelings and legitimate charges of unfairness; and second such an exclusive means that the scientist is at the total mercy of what one reporter decides to write. Instead, Joye should have first notified the university news service, worked with its science PIO to come up with a comprehensive statement and press kit, and held a news conference. The news conference could have included audio and even video teleconference feeds to enable reporters worldwide to participate.
  • When the inevitable flood of media calls began, Joye simply unplugged her phone, according to the Science article—an unwise move in terms of communication. Far more effective would have been to simply change her voice message to refer reporters to the news service, where calls would be answered, background information provided, and her response organized. The message also could have included reference to a Web site which would have contained a comprehensive set of materials on her research, her findings, and her plans.
  • The university has created a page covering Joye’s work, but it is minimalist. The page does include such information as a notice of media briefings, a podcast of a June news conference, and Joye’s Congressional testimony. However, it does not include other useful content such as  a gallery of publication-quality photos of Joye and her work, and links to news stories in such publications as the  Christian Science MonitorScience’s ScienceInsider column, the Wall St. Journal, or Stokstad’s Science article. It does not even include a  link to Joye’s laboratory site or to a three-part background video produced by the university that as of this writing is available on the university’s home page. Ironically, the NSF’s release on its grant to Joye (which for some reason is provided as a pdf file on the university news service page, rather than as a link) does offer a set of images produced by Joye. Generally, the news service page does not reflect a new understanding of such institutional Web sites, which is that they no longer merely serve the media, but the public directly. This new mission influences their design to be more than simple link lists, but full-fledged news sites with a visual design quality rivaling commercial media sites.

However, there were also positive steps taken by Joye and the news service that should be emulated:

Although the researchers did include a videographer on their cruise, who produced the video series, they could also have embedded a public information officer, as discussed in this chapter of Working with Public Information Officers . Such an embedded PIO could produce blog posts, news releases, photos, and videos. At the least, Joye could designate one of her team members to act as an information officer, who with some training by communicators could produce such material.

Coping with a hyperstory is challenging enough with plenty of preparation, but the instant hyperstory—as was the case with Joye’s research—can be a nightmare. However, by developing a general communication plan for handling crises and hyperstories, and adopting an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to managing them, communicators can make such events reflect well on both the researcher and the institution.

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27 08 2010
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