PIOs: Public Relations, A Life Less Ordinary


What with spin doctors and "Ab Fab," public relations doesn't have a great reputation in Britain. It's probably not a career path that would occur to many bench scientists. However, public relations is not about publicity stunts or putting a gloss on things; it's about managing relationships and trying to ensure that both parties in a communication situation understand what the other is saying. Perhaps you can begin to see why science needs good PR!

However, when I landed my job as Public Relations Coordinator for the British Society for Immunology just over three and a half years ago, I probably couldn't have given you a very lucid description of what PR was. I got lucky and landed a job I love--let me explain. My first degree was in chemistry, at the University of Oxford, where I spent 4 years of my life becoming increasingly annoyed at the way most of my friends thought it was fine, even admirable, to know nothing about science.

My interest was always the interface between chemistry and biology, so I leapt at the chance of a Ph.D. place at the University of Edinburgh working in the area of solid phase peptide synthesis (SPPS). My project involved using SPPS techniques to study interleukin-1beta converting enzyme, an enzyme important in the inflammatory response, with the eventual aim of developing new treatments for rheumatoid arthritis (hence my interest in immunology). The positive results didn't flood in, which fueled my desire to get out of the lab, though the lack of career structure and my overwhelming nosiness (I want to know what's going on in science generally, not just one little bit of it) contributed too.

As it turned out, going to Edinburgh was an inspired move. Why? Well, I joined a group called the Edinburgh Women's Science Forum which exists to bring together women scientists, and also women "just interested" in science. Through organizing events for the Forum and Edinburgh's very successful science festival, I realized how much I enjoyed the burgeoning field of Public Understanding of Science (PUS). This, combined with the bee still buzzing in my bonnet regarding the number of otherwise intelligent people who think that science is boring and unintellectual, made me consider a science communication career.

Well, I applied for quite a few different jobs, took a postdoc in the same lab to keep body and soul together, (never, ever do this) and began climbing the walls at the thought of another day of HPLC. At this point, my knight in shining armour, in the form of the British Society for Immunology, came to take me away from all that.

So, I found myself in London, in a brand new post (no predecessor's steps to follow in) with a bare smattering of immunology and a little PUS event organization experience. Pretty scary? Well, fortunately, many learned societies now have people like me. We're called many different things (from External Relations Officer to Education Officer) and have slightly different remits, but the important thing is there was a wealth of experience to call on. One of the most useful organizations, today as much as when I first started, is STEMPRA (the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine Public Relations Association), run by and for PR people in not-for-profit organizations.

And what do I do all day? When people think of PR they generally think of media relations, and of course this is important as it's a way to reach a large, and often influential, audience. I run a press office at our Annual Congress, organize media training days for our members, and try to help journalists find the right person to talk to (usually at about 5 minutes notice). Helping people turn what they think is a "lay summary" into an intelligible and interesting media release is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. Getting responses like "Wow, you've made my work sound really interesting!" (which of course it always was, once you cut through the jargon) and "This is the first time my daughter's really understood what I do" gives a very satisfying glow.

But the media are just one of the publics whose relationship with the society I look after. Our members are the society, and I try to make sure they know what's going on, as managing editor of our newsletter and looking after our Web site.

Schools are another important audience. I produce careers literature, run competitions for secondary school pupils, and organize events such as our annual Science, Engineering, and Technology (SET) week event at the Jenner Museum, which attracts schools from the Gloucestershire and Bristol areas to learn about cutting-edge immunology. I'm still organizing an annual event for the Edinburgh International Science Festival and I keep an eye on public policy and coordinate our responses to government consultations.

So, what should you do if you think this could be the career move for you? Well, the first thing to realize is, you're not alone and it's pretty competitive, so beef up your CV. There aren't that many jobs, although more and more organizations are realizing the importance of good communications, so I'd say the numbers are increasing slowly. Hone your writing skills and practice communicating without jargon. Remember, culture is what you go to Edinburgh for in August. Get involved with local PUS activities--does your university do anything for SET week? Are you a member of a learned society? If so, find out who your equivalent of me is and get in touch--we LOVE volunteers!!

Was my Ph.D. a waste of time then? Definitely not. For a start it gives me a degree (boom, boom) of credibility with the people I work for. And personal experience of the culture of university research is a definite bonus--I know where people are coming from. I'd say that NOT being an immunologist is a real plus, though--I understand enough to translate, but I'm not so steeped in the jargon that I don't notice when I'm using it.

Do I miss the lab? Not in the slightest. I used to wake up with a sinking feeling, knowing exactly how my week was going to pan out. Now I never know what bizarre request is going to hit my desk or which fascinating person will give me a call--stressful at times, but never dull!

The British Society for Immunology advances the science of immunology through the publication of its journals, the organization of scientific meetings, and its work with schools and the general public. We represent immunology globally, principally in the United Kingdom.

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