by Benjamin Hill, Public Relations Manager, University of Birmingham
Interacting with the media (in whatever form) allows your research to reach thousands or even millions of people, through TV, press, blogs and social media. Although there remains residual reluctance amongst some academics to undertake this kind of activity it offers unique opportunities to raise the profile of work to funding bodies, create public awareness of an issue or to communicate research to other specialists through trade and academic press.
The world of the web and social media has opened up new opportunities for academics to discuss their work with a wider range of publics than ever before. This can help to generate wider interest and debate about a particular topic, although with that opportunity comes the potential for greater scrutiny.
In an academic environment where impact is being measured and where academics are keener than ever to demonstrate the importance of their work the question shouldn’t be do I need to do this work? But rather can I afford not to?
The Media and Academia
Academics are of huge interest to the media and the wider commentariat, although it can sometimes be hard to convince academic colleagues of the synergies that exist between the two worlds.
Journalists, even the most experienced correspondents, are not experts in every story they are asked to cover. They need experts from a range of backgrounds to provide information and help tell stories accurately, communicating to a non-specialist audience.
Journalists are also wary of being seen to comment personally on stories, so expert comment helps give readers and listeners an idea of the issues involved without forcing the journalist to take sides. Academics have two things that journalists particularly value: independence and expertise. A correspondent tackling the complex politics of North Africa or the complexities of international aid policy will almost certainly need to seek advice on some of the intricacies of these issues.
Aligned to this, the growth of a 24/7 global media has created its own demand for people who can provide informed and impartial comment: channels like BBC News, Sky News and Five Live, look to academics to provide expert comment on the day’s news agenda on a daily basis.
The independence and robust methodology of academic research is also attractive to the media. Study results from university research form a significant part of the news. A cursory look at the BBC News homepage reveals how many stories emanate from research or reports across an extremely wide range of topics from medicine to politics.
Commenting on current events requires academics to think about how their research can add value to the news agenda. There is a need for academics, particularly in the social sciences, to think about how best to define and create impact with their work and to recognise the power that communicating through the media has in developing discussion and challenging perceived wisdom.
Communicating your research outputs to the media can initially seem daunting: a loss of control, allowing your work to be interpreted by someone else. Nevertheless there are huge benefits in overcoming this reticence as interacting with a media allows your research to reach thousands or even millions of people.
Your press office can offer help and advice if you are contacted directly by a journalist or would like to use facilities. Before contacting the press office it is worth thinking about who you want to see the story. If you are looking to contact internal clients or academic peers a press release may not be the most effective solution. Other options might be social media, email or internal newsletters.
The press office team are always delighted to discuss any publicity ideas and suggest possible media organisations you could target. To attract wider interest a story will need to have certain elements that make it attractive to journalists. Although it is always difficult to predict with certainty which stories will be successful, there are key ideas, which are always important.
- Is the work novel or particularly unusual?
- Does the release coincide with any current or upcoming news stories?
- Will it change the way things are done?
- Does it challenge current thinking on a major topic?
- Will it affect people’s lives?
- Does it have a local interest angle?
- Can the research be simply explained for a mass audience?
- Is there a strong visual angle for journalists to grab hold of?
Is there any part of the story, which can be used to make attractive and striking moving footage?
Some other considerations:
Is there any aspect of the story, which is likely to excite particular controversy or criticism. If so it may be necessary to prepare answers and ideas in advance.
Dealing with the Media
Before you do any interviews, make sure you know what publication / station / journalist you are being interviewed by, how long the interview is expected to last and, if it’s a broadcast interview, whether it will be live or pre-recorded.
Try to get as good an idea as possible of the kind of issues the journalist wants to discuss. It is often worth speaking to the journalist in advance of a formal interview or alternatively, speak to a member of the press office team, who can ascertain the angle of the interview on your behalf. However, it is not common practice for a journalist to supply a list of questions in advance.
Once the interview has started you can’t start looking for facts and figures.
In the Interview
In the interview, the key point is to answer questions directly and accurately. In broadcast interviews, manner and tone of voice create just as strong an impression as the content of your answers. Try not to refuse to answer questions, but if you have to: explain why.
Most journalists, whether working in print or broadcast, will be looking for short clips or sound bites to use. Depending on audience they are trying to reach this could be as short as 8-10 seconds (commercial radio). Generally it is important to try and be succinct in answering, even when dealing with complex topics. If you are aware that you are being interviewed about a complex story, it may be worth outlining two or three brief key points in advance.
Radio and TV thrive on examples so try and use accessible parallels during the interview, or metaphors that can help bring your story to life. Most importantly, speak naturally. Both TV and radio are intimate mediums. Although you may have an audience of several million people, you can speak to each person individually. Interviews should ideally be natural and conversational.
Commenting on Current News
There is considerable scope for academics to comment on ongoing news stories. The University of Birmingham, for example, regularly contacts the media to highlight academics who are interested in commenting on ongoing news stories. We actively encourage academics to be proactive in becoming involved in media.
In cases where there is an important ongoing story, eg: the credit crunch, Iraq or General Elections: the demand for comment, to move the story on is even greater. This is an excellent chance to raise the profile of a department and to provide a platform to discuss your research interests with a wider audience.
Getting involved in someone else’s story can potentially create controversy, particularly if journalists are looking for a contrary opinion or to stimulate debate. This does not happen often, but if you have doubts about becoming involved with a controversial story, please feel free to discuss it with the press office.
Writing a release
The key to a good press release is to tell the story simply and effectively. This is sometimes broken down into five principles:
- Point: The key idea behind
- Perspective: Where the story fits into current research
- Proof: What facts help back up the release
- Purpose: What is the reason behind this research
- People: Who is involved, is there a human angle
Although this simplified list may not apply exactly to releases dealing with complex research outcomes, it does give a sense of what journalists are looking for from a good release.
Most releases will contain:
- An opening sentence explaining the basis of the story, hitting the reader with the key message at the top
- A clear outline of the key facts (often backed by carefully chosen statistics)
- A quote from someone involved in the project providing perspective on the story
- Relevant references (so journalists can access a relevant paper or document)
- Contact details for press officers