Thursday, October 13, 2011

Lessons from announcing a #Nobel win--and the winner's death

When it comes to Nobel Prize announcements, "I always tell my staff that it's crisis communications, but we're preparing for a happy crisis," says Joe Bonner, who directs communications and public affairs for Rockefeller University. But this year, an unforeseen and unprecedented event gave Bonner's team two announcements to make on short notice last Monday morning: The award of the Nobel for medicine to research Ralph Steinman for his discovery of dendritic cells, keys to the immune system, and Steinman's death three days earlier.

The odd confluence of events set the university, Nobel officials and reporters scrambling throughout the day. I asked Bonner to share insights for communications directors from this unusual episode. Here's what happened and what you can learn from it:

Nothing beats preparation: Institutions with Nobel-worthy researchers typically have a plan in place for the week of awards, particularly since the announcements come with short notice and early in the morning in the U.S. Eastern time zone. Rockefeller has ties to a whopping two dozen Nobel Prize winners, with most of its winners coming from the faculty ranks. Last Monday, the groundwork was laid: facilities and security knew to expect a call from communications telling them to prepare for reporters and a possible press conference, a phone chain was in place, and bios for relevant researchers were up to date--as of the previous Friday. After learning of the death, Bonner called one of Steinman's daughters to discuss how to handle the twin announcements: "We agreed the best way to handle it would be to announce both at the same time," he said, "which meant that the template we had for a Nobel announcement was not quite thrown out the window, but was radically altered." Rockefeller aims to hold its news conferences about Nobel prizes by 10am and this day was no exception--so both announcements needed to be ready in a short window.

Anticipate extra steps: In addition to all the normal notifications about a Nobel winner on campus, Rockefeller President Marc Tessier-Lavigne had to call the Nobel committee to report Steinman's death. The New York City-based university focuses only on graduate-level research and its small and close community of 2,000 people needed to hear about the death before a public announcement. Every template prepared for the announcement needed a rewrite, from the website announcement that linked to a page with Steinman's bio to the president's message to the campus community. Without a winner to speak at the news conference, surrogates had to be enlisted from the faculty and the family members, who asked to read a statement.

Know your backups: Bonner's check of the Nobel website at 5:30 am Eastern time found that the site had already crashed from excessive traffic, so he turned to Twitter, where he found and was able to confirm reports that Steinman had won. A few hours later, Rockefeller's planned live feed of the news conference also crashed due to unusually high interest, and while the team had hoped to live-tweet the news conference, that fell by the wayside. But some earlier backup plans came in handy that day. Because Steinman was so ill,  "we were prepared for the possibility that he wouldn't be on campus, something we think about for any potential winner, who might be at a conference or traveling," Bonner said. Because of his illness, a Skype hookup was tested for possible use at the news conference, and thought was given to scientific colleagues who could explain his work if he were unable to do so.

Mind your community:  By taking the time to talk to potential surrogate spokespeople and making sure the campus community heard about the news first, Rockefeller was able to bring a unique advantage to the coverage and the announcement. "The family was very generous in offering to answer calls and talk to reporters," Bonner said. (You can listen to this NPR interview with Steinman's son as one good example.) "We were dividing up who wants to talk about science and who wants to talk about him as a person." Steinman's longtime collaborator Michel Nussenzweig, who spoke at the news conference, was able to recall the skepticism Steinman faced about his discovery. "I don't know if Ralph would have talked about that, but it was important for Michel to get that point across," Bonner said.

Odd circumstances provoke questions: Before the news conference, the Nobel committee issued a statement of condolence, indicating that it had only learned of the death when the university called, and noting that the university had only been notified that morning after the announcement. The distinction was critical. Steinman's death threw into question whether he could receive the award posthumously, given the Nobel Prize rules. By the time of the Rockefeller news conference, "all we knew was that they had posted the condolence statement, and there were reports the committee would meet." Eventually, the Nobel Foundation announced that the award to Steinman would stand, calling the event of his death so close to the award "unique and, to the best of our knowledge...unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prize."  The high-visibility, much-anticipated awards prompt weeks of speculation in the scientific community and among science journalists. Bonner said "we knew we'd get questions about the timing."  This time, it didn't help that, as reported by the New York Times, the Nobel Foundation varied its usual policy of making personal contact with winners before going public. For this prize, the foundation was not able to reach any of the three winners of this prize before the announcement. A couple of reporters questioned the timing of the announcement, implying that both the family and the university had motives to keep the death quiet in hopes of getting the prize. But "the simple fact was that we got the call about the prize and then we got the call about Ralph's death," he said.

Here are the university's news release and the video of the news conference, which includes speakers from the faculty as well as Steinman's family:

Compile lessons learned immediately: It's been eight years since the last time a Rockefeller faculty member won a Nobel prize, says Bonner, who has worked on four such announcements. "Now, we'll probably have this in the back of our minds, and we have this experience to look back on how we prepare for and execute tasks on the day of the award. We know some things worked and some things didn't--for example, we're going to figure out how to handle a higher server load." The sustained high volume of press calls far outweighed any previous Nobel announcement for the university, with interview requests still coming in this week.

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