Working with the media

The University's Communications & Public Affairs Office recently appointed two new College-facing Communications Officers:

Both are journalists with many years of press experience and will help prepare press releases on work that is of interest to an external audience. Given that they provide a service across the College of MVLS, they must prioritise requests on the basis of:

  • whether there is potential for media interest in the project/story, and
  • whether working on the project in question will benefit the University's overall strategic objectives

They also help connect media professionals who contact the University looking for experts, or to follow up on recent press releases associated with your work. You can also contact Elizabeth and Ali for general advice about speaking to the media about your work (and dealing with any negative backlash).

If you're developing a media package, remember that YOU are a key part of that package. People will be looking you up online, so along with a press release, now is the time to take charge of your staff profile content, key messages and signposts to any social media. Twitter is a great way to involve yourself (i.e. be mentioned) and take ownership of your media story.

When and why to contact the media officers – your responsibilities

You should feel free to contact Ali or Elizabeth to discuss any work that you think might be interesting to a wider audience. If you would like to issue a press release it is important to reach out to them before the research appears online, i.e. as soon as you have (or expect to have) a research article accepted in a peer-reviewed journal. Include a few lines of context: what the research was and why you think it's important (and what the implications are). Sharing this information with a press officer will not break the journal's embargo.

Press releases may be issued to local media, national, international or specialist media. The closer you work with Ali and Elizabeth, the better the opportunity to target a release. You can also discuss prestigious peer-reviewed funding or honours, which may form the basis of a potential news story either within the University or more widely.

Also contact them if the journal or your funder plan to issue a press release—this way they can help field media enquiries that come into their office.

Factors influencing newsworthiness might include:

  • Is the work novel or unusual?
  • Would the release coincide with major current news stories or events?
  • Does it challenge current thinking on a major topic (in a way that might resonate with the general public)?
  • Will it change the way things are done? Address a conflict?
  • Will it affect people's health or wealth?
  • Is it the first, largest, most comprehensive, interesting approach (BE SURE about this, hyperbole gets you nowhere)
  • Is there a strong local interest angle?
  • Is there a strong visual angle, such as images or video, for journalists to use?

Expert commentary: Even when not looking to promote a recently published paper or award, you can also contribute expert comment to ongoing news stories or trends. If you join the Experts Directory, the media office can find you when journalists contact the University looking for expert comment. Alternatively, if you feel you have something to contribute to an ongoing discussion in the media, speak to Elizabeth and Ali. Traditional media outlets may also support op-eds in some of their online platforms, or the opportunity to comment in stories being developed.

However, an excellent new platform for academic op-eds is The Conservation—an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public. Find out more about writing for them.

Further media relations FAQs and how to join the Experts Directory.

Good general advice from University of Cambridge.

Key points to consider if you want good (and accurate) coverage

  • Think about the key messages and the context for your research, and consider whether there are particular audiences you would like to reach. Discuss your thoughts with Ali and Elizabeth.
  • Journalists often have little time and tight turnarounds. It's important to get the messages (and facts) straight in the press release. It is important to say what the study shows, but equally, say what the study can't (or doesn't) show. Any serious journalist will seek to contact the researcher behind the work, and as this is the route too higher quality media coverage, it is important to ensure you're as available for comment.
  • Keep records: Keep any news cuttings the media team send you (which will also provide the circulation). In particualr, take note of science writers and other journalists who have written good news and features on research in your area, or from your own press releases in the past. Keep a record of how to contact them and use them again.
  • Be aware of the University's policy on openness in animal research. Any use of animals in research should be disclosed.
  • Read Ed Yong's 'Guide for scientists giving comments to journalists'.
  • Let your funder know if you have a prominent publication (with or without press coverage). Several funders use their websites and blogs to celebrate key findings from their community, e.g. The Wellcome Trust blog.
  • Read the following article in The Scientist, 'Getting the Word OutIn a shifting media landscape with a growing public interest in science, some researchers are doing their own PR.' [Includes selection of science news outlets and how to contact them].

Write your own press release

Press releases are a necessary evil for journalists who often have to trawl through hundreds of them. Bare this in mind, and think about how to make yours stand out. The following guidance on writing a press release is adapted from the ESRC's guidance.

  • Use a strong headline and clear opening paragraph to capture the attention.
  • Think about your style – writing for the media is the opposite of writing academic reports. In press releases, you must start with your conclusions and then support this in the following paragraphs.
  • Separate the main news from any technical information (which can be attached separately as Notes to Editors). Distil the essence of your research into three or four points.
  • While emphasising what your research shows, also consider what the study does not show (or can’t show), and mention this where there is scope for the study to be misinterpreted.
  • Back up these points with facts and figures.
  • Ensure your release covers the five essential questions – who, what, why, where and when?
  • Add a conclusion that outlines the main policy implications or the 'way forward'.
  • Keep it concise and simple (one page ideal, two pages max) and jargon-free.
  • Be concrete, factual and specific.
  • Don't qualify or hedge your results any more than necessary – avoid phases like 'on the one hand', 'on the other hand', which may leave your audience feeling that the research is inconclusive and therefore not worthy of attention. Similarly, saying ‘further research is needed’ suggests you haven't reached a conclusion worth writing about!
  • Be clear on the messages you want to convey.
  • Quotes can help bring the story to life.

Why engage with the news media

It's a good question. While there can be a degree of fear at the prospect—the loss of control once the news is out and how people will interpret it—with a bit of preparation, you can make it work well for you. The news media is possibly the best way to get your research out to a wide (general) audience, though of course it isn't now the sole way of doing so. It can enhance your profile/reputation, establish your expertise in a wider sphere, open up other opportunities to engage, helping your research reach the communities you need to reach. In particular, think about how it can help you raise awareness of a key issue, particularly where these are an outcome of your research (disease control approaches, environmental impacts, conservation issues).

You can help retain control by having your own digital footprint (a personal website, social media, blog). This allows you to capitalise on the positives of a story, and add value to it, yet also be responsive to any negatives or misconceptions—people genuinely appreciate additional commentary from the scientists involved. With a bit of strategic thinking, honing the messages you want to get out and audiences you want to reach, the media can provide a significant pathway to research uptake.

But don't take our word for it—read what the Science Media Centre has to say in their leaflet 'Why engage with the news media?'

Audit your own communications channels

When the story isn't quite right for generalist news media:

  • If you have identified key audiences you need to reach (e.g. conservationists, veterinarians, farmers, renewables industry, global health NGOs), you should audit the channels you have available to reach them directly. These may include specialist news outlets (e.g. Mongabay or Farmer's weekly), professional society magazines (e.g. Microbiology Today) and blogs (e.g. BOU blog).

Approaching specialist writers and media yourself will send a stronger message, assuring them that you will be contactable.

  • There are many freelancers out there, you can often find them by engaging with Twitter, or from great articles of their that you've read. You may also find them authoring professional blogs on prominent platforms such as National Geographic Phenomena or Scientific American blogs. Ensure you know the subject matter they cover.

    While they have access to the standard Press Release syndicators, they won't necessarily be looking for the BIG NEWS that just about every other staff journalist will be covering. They are often after the feature stories noone else has heard of yet, with access to interesting characters, ideas and narrative.

    You will need to pitch them an idea, framing your research story in a wider context. You could even invite them to join you on your next field trip. By engaging with them, you add credability, and it says you're approachable. They can take it the extra distance if they are interested. Remember, they aren't just scribes for your research—they are freelancers who need to be able to sell their stories, pitching them to specialist publications such as NewScientist or The Atlantic. Give them plenty of lead time and make yourself available to speak to them whenever—this is essential.

  • Identify the communication officers (or known key contacts) at charities, advocacy groups (where appropriate) and other small NGOs (especially those you work with) related to your field, and discuss sharing news via their communications networks. If you do work with them on a news feature directly, let our own press office know.

  • Consider the channels you consume yourself, as well as those more generally in your research area—blogs, specialist magazines and other news sources. If you see value in the information they provide, perhaps you should be contributing something to them.