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The Executive Officer’s Column

Enhancing the ASA Public Information Program

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer

A year ago, the ASA Council expressed strong interest in having the ASA Executive Office expand our program of outreach to the mass media. Council believed additional resources invested in this activity would significantly leverage our existing efforts and permit new approaches to bring sociology and sociological research to the general public and policymakers through the media. While ASA’s current outreach efforts have had notable successes, and we have a strong track record with a sizable set of journalists, more is better.

After an organization-wide communications audit by a firm with expertise in social science communication, we have begun working on key recommendations Council found compelling. Generally, the goal of our Public Information Program (PIP) is to scale up dissemination of research findings to broader public audiences—through both national and local media—by working daily to connect the media with sociologists who have expertise in topics of interest to producers and journalists. The addition to the Executive Office staff of an experienced professional Media Relations Officer (MRO) with a background in sociology and in award-winning broadcast news production will help ASA capitalize on new and existing opportunities. (See article, “New Staff at the ASA Executive Office”)

Media Relations Activities

Proactive and media outreach is central to success. ASA has long been reliably responsive to journalists’ inquiries and requests for interviewees and research. We are now producing a timely flow to the press (e.g., media advisories, press releases, story pitches) and continue responding to daily press inquiries. We are also beginning to rethink the ASA’s press web pages. These first steps toward more creative and effective publicity are in alignment with Council’s aspirations.

Experiments with new ways of outreach will follow as we continue to integrate media relations functions into other ASA activities and programs. We have made considerable progress engaging media interest in the new knowledge published in our journals (something many authors thought unlikely), but we need to build the capacity of ASA and members to outreach effectively. We also need to shape a media niche for the scholarly community, develop stronger external networks and alliances, and, especially, to brand this niche as sociology. Too many members’ work is cited in the press, with or without attribution to the scholar or researcher, but without reference to the work as sociological.

Engagement of Membership

The backbone of the PIP is our membership. It is your expertise, scholarship, and unique knowledge that provide added value to the media and its audiences. The goal of our PIP is to promote the Association, sociology, and sociologists by providing a link between sociologists and the media, aggressively encouraging the media to want those sources, and to firmly brand that added value as sociological. Our MRO taps several databases of experts, especially those who have published and presented scholarship. We engage the leadership of ASA Sections, members of Council, task forces, and committees for referrals, and we regularly are approached by members about their own availability to the press.

Guiding Principles

In providing the media with sociological knowledge, the ASA is not advocating for particular positions, forms of research, or areas of expertise. Obviously, only by vote of Council or the membership does the Association speak officially on behalf of the membership. Our PIP staff provide these official statements to the media with appropriate persons in leadership and/or subject matter experts to provide context. Individual sociologists—members or not—whom we connect to the media speak on their own behalf with their professional credentials as the basis of their contributions. It is the responsibility of the Association, however, to provide the press with sociologists who have professional expertise in the area about which they speak. This is typically determined by research and publication in peer-reviewed journals or other evidence of pertinent scholarship.

Our new MRO has begun a proactive weekly email to selected reporters and editors relating to timely news. In January, her advisories have generated member interviews with the New York Daily News, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, and New York City’s WPIX-TV, among others. In addition, these advisories have resulted in inquiries from Fox News Channel, Al Jazeera International, and National Public Radio. She has aggressively promoted ASA journal articles, collaborating with the authors’ institutional Public Information Officers to promote upcoming publications. She works especially closely with the editors and managing editors, as appropriate, to promote ASA journal articles. Relying on her journalism skills, ASA is working to re-structure the media relations webpage to align better with the needs of journalists and producers. ASA and its members already are reaping results as our MRO establishes a relationship with new media outlets and encourages more journalists to look first to the ASA as a reliable resource for new knowledge, interviews, and comments from sociologists. We will keep our members updated on these activities, and look forward to engaging with more of you as we move forward.

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer