By Caroline Gillett
I scrawled some notes at a recent workshop on engaging with the media. I can’t take credit for these tips, but I hope by sharing them here the information can be of use to a few others!
So… you are doing some exciting work and a research article is on the horizon. Get in touch with the Press Office with enough lead time!
Remember: It is MUCH, MUCH more difficult to ‘sell’ a research story after it has already been published, so a press release should be coordinated with the Press Office AHEAD of journal publication, so as to coincide with the date of publication or where possible shortly before publication. A few days or weeks after publication, research stories are often (unfortunately) viewed as ‘old news’, so the time window to create a buzz is often quite short. If you cannot risk details being leaked ahead of formal publication you can let the Press Office know and they can put an embargo on the press release. This means that journalists know that they cannot print any stories ahead of the official publication date.
OK, so what is ‘News’? Well, start by asking yourself if your story is…
- New. Maybe not for your field, but new for the public at least.
- Surprising. Journalists like stories which are counter-intuitive, challenging traditional ways of thinking. Similarly, a story which confirms a particular preconception can often also be of interest.
- Controversial. Controversy obviously gets publicity… but tread very carefully!
- Topical. Events in the news (e.g. an earthquake or major political event) often dictate the content of the news. Therefore, keep an eye out on what’s happening ‘out there’ and take the opportunity to plug into the wider context where you can. This is one of the rare opportunities for slightly ‘older’ research articles to get a second chance at glory if you are lucky.
- Quirky. It seems people enjoy the weird and wonderful… who knew!?
- Relevant. Who cares? When positioning and pitching a story consider the views (left/right wing) of the newspaper/media platform and what would appeal to their audience. Research confirming a preconception might not go down well with one audience, but might be lapped up by another, for example.
Most journalists don’t have time to read journal articles, so a well crafted press release is much more likely to get their attention. Work with the Press Office and ensure you sign off on the final copy, so that the key research messages are not distorted. You will not get this luxury when it comes to working with the majority journalists, so exercise control where you can.
Note: Typically newspapers journalists need to have most stories (with the exception of front page news) in hand by noon. This is less true of online media content, but is worth bearing in mind if you are hoping to make a splash in the paper.
What journalists want (according to the journalist at the event):
- Audience relevance [demographics / geographical locations e.g. especially for a local paper]
- Wow factor
- Your time and some good quotes!
- Conversational tone [It helps if you come across as passionate and “human” (not my own words, so please don’t shoot the messenger!)]
- You to make crystal clear why people should care about your work. What does your research tell us about our place in the world?
- Added value and additional content: Decent photos, videos, GIFS etc.
What journalists don’t want:
- Jargon/technical language
- Yes/No answers to their questions or being told the answer is “in the book/article”
- You to assume they/the audience have any prior knowledge [though often journalists do]
- Their time wasted. If you have no time to call back and you would prefer to interact via email be upfront.
- Researchers to quote other researchers or studies during interview unless necessary. If you do this you should provide them with a reference, but don’t be surprised if you become the footnote and the other researcher becomes the main story…
Warning! Always assume you are talking ON THE RECORD. Be sure to ask if they are recording you. Journalists don’t tend to give copy approval, however it is sometimes possible to ask to review your quotes ahead of publication. Check and obtain agreement in advance! Don’t let a journalist push you into giving numbers/statistics you aren’t 100% happy and confident with putting out there. Also, don’t be too devastated if your content doesn’t get used…
Occasionally journalists can be abusive of your time and/or ask you to do things you may not be comfortable with. For example, let’s imagine your research is all about developing autonomous robots. It might not be wise then to let them persuade you to control the robot with a joystick for the purposes of a video segment they want to film… as the video would in effect detract from the very point of your research! A cheesy photograph with a robot is one thing, but maintain your principles where it matters!
If you find yourself being swamped with media interest, the Press Office can be very helpful at fielding interest on your behalf. They can help by setting up meetings based around your availability, so share your diary commitments with them to help them coordinate this when necessary. Also be sure to make sure the media engagement metrics are being tracked (downloads, views, advertising value equivalent etc.) as you might be able to use this evidence as a means of demonstrating the ‘impact’ of your research.
Ultimately, if you get the chance to do some media engagement… say YES! It’s great experience and often opens doors to other things by raising your profile and improving your interpersonal communication skills. CC in your Press Officer contact so they are aware of it happening though!
Cultivate relationships with the journalists you’ve been in contact with. Occasionally tweet them when you have new discoveries on the horizon. Keep it friendly though and don’t get too pushy. Making yourself visible using a good profile on the university’s website, blog or Twitter can all help.
Consider writing a piece for The Conversation. This will give you an opportunity to write a news article with help from an editor and you get final say on copy.
Find out more information or to find your local UoB Press Officer go here: http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/news/contacts/index.aspx
- For general/ first stage inquiries you can email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Call the Press Office out of hours on +44 (0)7789 921165