Adventures of a CEO: Anatomy of an Announcement

Some of us can keep a secret. At the Museum, many of us recently had our secrecy skills put to the test. We needed stealth because our major—and controversial—scientific discovery that could rewrite human history in the Americas had to break first in Nature, a rigorously peer-reviewed scientific journal (read more about the discovery here).

Now that the cat is out of the bag, we can reveal what was happening behind the scenes.

The scientists spent decades amassing the evidence presented in the paper that was published in Nature on April 27. The rest of us only had a couple of months to make sure the announcement went smoothly, and that the specimens were on display in a way that helped visitors make sense of this very exciting yet complicated discovery. 

The journal Nature receives about 10,000 submissions for publication each year. Most are rejected upon receipt, and only 40 percent are sent for peer review. The field is further whittled down after review, and in the end only about 7 percent of the articles the journal receives are eventually published in one of their weekly issues.

Last October, when we learned our submission was returned with additional questions from reviewers—but not rejected—the odds were starting to look good for publication. It was time to assemble a planning team. Every week that went by without a rejection notice reinforced the possibility that Nature might publish the paper. We knew Nature released articles six to eight weeks after acceptance, so we needed to get ready in case the paper was given the green light. Our vision was to bring many of the 11 authors to San Diego for a press conference and public program. We also wanted to put some of the specimens on display for visitors to see.

In early March, we received word the paper was conditionally accepted for publication, so things started to get real. Development of the exhibition and PR strategy started in earnest, and we treated roll-out week as if we were planning a wedding. If we had the correct sequence of events, we could plan backwards from a still unknown publication date.

The first task was to take a complicated technical story and turn some rocks and broken bones into a compelling and informative display. Erica Kelly, our exhibit developer, took on the task of interpreting the research for public audiences. Her colleagues in our Exhibits Department designed and fabricated the display quickly and quietly. It was installed in a prominent location near an entrance behind pipe and drape, and we covered the panels and cases in case anyone peeked in. We needed to raise funds without divulging their exact use. Under normal circumstances this is an unacceptable practice, so VP of Institutional Advancement Eowyn Bates turned to our Board and supporters of the original excavation. To our amazement, 12 donors stepped up and underwrote project expenses.

The paper’s startling conclusion is supported by multiple lines of evidence from very specialized fields. The entire team of public relations, development, scientific, exhibition, and programming staff had to get up to speed quickly about the research and the potential criticism it would encounter. The authors patiently responded to questions, reviewed text, and participated in conference call discussions. As a group we worked through questions and answers, and Rebecca Handelsman, April Tellez, and Board Member Jon Schmid produced a comprehensive announcement strategy and set of press materials.

There were some key players who needed to know about the news directly from us, so local elected officials, important stakeholders, and Museum supporters received mysterious meeting and conference call requests. Days before the paper’s release we swore everyone to secrecy and provided an outline of the research results.

Nature shepherded the release of the paper. The timing was centered on Nature’s location—and time zone—in London. On Monday of Mastodon Week, Nature circulated a weekly roundup of upcoming papers to trusted science journalists, with the news embargoed until the publication date several days later. We knew something big was up when nearly 70 news outlets registered for a Tuesday conference call with the authors. Our embargoed press materials went out as well, so our PR team worked with scores of reporters from around the world as many news stories were hurriedly prepared in time for the big reveal at our press conference the morning of Wednesday, April 26. Fortunately 6 PM in London (the time at which the embargo was lifted) was 10 AM in San Diego, an ideal time for us to assemble the authors and news crews. As the press conference started, hundreds of news stories were simultaneously posted online and via social media. 

We breathed a sigh of relief as the press conference started. Many people had knowledge of the excavation over the past 24 years, but we managed to keep the paper’s acceptance quiet enough that the news broke with its publication. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

In the weeks leading up to the announcement, Richard Cerutti and Dr. Tom Deméré visit the Paleontology collection to look at some of the fossils that will become the subject of international media attention.

The display is installed under a veil of secrecy, lest any visitors peek behind the curtains before the news is announced.

Nearly all the local television stations--and some national news outlets--showed up for the press conference announcing the Cerutti Mastodon site and news of its publication in Nature. Here, Judy Gradwohl welcomes the media and introduces many of the paper's 11 authors.

VP of Research and Public Programs Dr. Michael Wall moderates a NATtalk involving several of the authors of the manuscript. Seated from left to right are Dr. Daniel Fisher, Dr. James Paces, Dr. Richard Fullager, Dr. Steve Holen, and Dr. Tom Deméré.

Posted by President and CEO Judy Gradwohl on May 4, 2017

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