Today I had the pleasure of travelling up to Glasgow to take part in a Standing up for Science media workshop designed to:
Public debates can be anything from talking and giving presentations to tweeting about science topics or working with journalists and the mass media to contributing to a blog. The course is run by Sense about Science, a charitable trust set up to help people make sense of science and scientific claims. Their website is full of interesting booklets on a range of scientific and medical topics and is well worth a look.
The course itself was exceptional, consisting of 3 panel and discussion sessions with some group work in-between. The panelists included experts from academia and the media as well as science communication specialists; all of the panelists had so many fantastic stories and insights to offer which were both inspirational and confidence building. If you get the chance to go on this course, grab it!
I am on the train home now and feeling truly inspired, so I thought I would share a handful of top tips from the course for anyone wanting to promote their research or
science in the media. Before I do I have to thank the University of Glasgow for hosting the event, Joanne Thomas and Victoria Murphy for organizing a brilliant day and the Society for Applied Microbiology (SfAM) for giving me the opportunity to go.
Disclaimer: There were so many great panelists that I am afraid I couldn’t tell you who gave which tip particularly since most were reinforced by other panel members. So there is a list at the bottom of the page to credit and thank all the experts which made the day exceptional.
Tip 1: Don’t be frightened!
When you are starting out in research it is easy to feel scared and vulnerable: Of people with more experience than you, of making a fool of yourself, of journalists who could exploit you and of having your name in the media. We have all been told the scare stories of academics shamed by releasing incorrect data to the media, wrongfully misquoted or misunderstood and it is easy to bury your head in the sand for the whole of your PhD. But I can tell you there is hope! The main message I took from today was don’t be scared, just start writing/ recording/ filming and get down to promoting science. It is very rare for academics to have a bad experience with the media despite the horror stories which PhD induction tutors say.
Tip 2: The pub test
It is difficult to decide which research or topics you might want to write about yourself and even harder to decide if you should take your research to a journalist to have it disseminated to a wider audience. The best way to decide whether your research is suited to the mass media is the simple pub test. Peter Ranscombe, a freelance journalist and editor, recommends trying to explain your research to family or friends, particularly over a pint in the pub. If you can explain your research to them simply, in less than a minute then that is a good start! You will also get some honest feedback from your family and friends (Particularly after a couple of pints!) so you can either refine how you get the important messages in your research across. Don’t be upset if your idea doesn’t turn out to be any good, it is a fact of academia that some of the research is not suited to a public audience; things like methods papers are probably just too complicated or too boring for the mass media.
But if you do have a great idea, have practiced getting your messages across to a public audience, and you think the public would be interested in it, then it is time to contact the media. Do this either through your university press office or contact a journalist directly (but the press office you have done this!)
Tip 3: Journalists are human, trust them.
I met several journalists today and by all accounts they seemed human. If you have some grade A, solid gold research which you think would make a great story, don’t hesitate to get it to a Journalist. They are experts at communicating with the wider public and will probably get your message across better than you, even after hours of practice in the pub! A common concern is scientific research will be misrepresented in the press, however no journalist worth their salt (and journalist jobs are hard to keep and even harder to get nowadays so most journalists with a job are worth their salt!) would set out to misrepresent a story. So bite the bullet, get over your fears and trust a journalist with your research.
Tip 4: Journalists are human, find a good one!
Although all of the journalists on the course came highly recommended, it is clear not all
journalists are equal. Find a good journalist by getting recommendations from your
supervisors, colleagues or university press office (See tip 5) and if you like them,
stick with them. A really important message which was highlighted by both the academics and media professional alike was that working with the same people time and again leads to a better relationship and more trust; which can lead to you both getting more out of the relationship.
Tip 5: The academic – journalist relationship is professional, deal with it.
Journalists are contacted relentlessly with ideas for stories and few of these ideas turn out to make good stories and even fewer good stories make it into the media. This doesn’t mean to say journalists don’t want to be contacted, on the contrary all of the journalists on the panel said they would much rather be contacted and be turning down ideas than the opposite. What this does mean though is that the journalist who you have a good relationship with is going to have to turn down your ideas more often than not. Eleanor Bradford, Health correspondent for BBC Scotland, suggests that academic – journalist should be seen as a professional, business relationship. This means that if your research is turned down for a story, don’t be offended it isn’t personal. Journalists are not there to be your friend, they want exactly what you want, positive media attention for science. The important message is keep on sending your ideas no matter how many times you are turned down and no matter how silly you think your story is.
Tip 6: Use your university press office
The university press office is an unknown entity to most PhD students, but it is an invaluable resource. The role of the press office is to promote the university and manage their public image and as such they are experts in public communication. They would be interested in anything that helps you to get your science or your research into the public eye. If you have some research that would make a good story (See Tip2: The Pub Test), go and speak to them; they can give you advice on anything from press releases, giving quotes for stories, advice on how to communicate your message better or setting up a blog.
The message which came across loud and clear from Ross Barker the Senior Communications officer at the University of Glasgow was get yourself to your press office! It doesn’t matter if you take 20 ideas and only one turns out to be good, that is much better than not taking them anything and they will be pleased to help.
Tip 7: Give them the whole package
If I have been humbled by anything today, it is how little time journalists have. Those at newspapers are likely to be writing more than 3 stories a day, whilst those working only online more like 10 or 12! This means they are unlikely to have much time to spare looking up background information for you or organizing nice pictures to be taken. Instead, once you are ready to approach a journalist offer them case studies where there is evidence of the impact of your research and give them access to some good quality photos (Not taken from you iphone, no matter how much you paid for it!). If your university press office is on the ball, you could leave them a stock of professional photos of members of your department or scientists doing different things. Doing this means your story is more likely to get into the media since less work will be required to get it ready.
Tip 8: Timing is everything
A journalist wants to be the first with a good story, as soon as it comes out; Speaking to them a week after your paper is published it is too late. The big journals like Nature release press-packs, contacting the media with details of what will be published a couple of days before publication “Under embargo”. This essentially means that the journalists can get ahead and prepare a story to be released when the publication comes out. If you are publishing in a smaller journal and your paper might make a good story or even if there is an event which your research links nicely with, get it to journalists or your press office early and tell them the embargo or event date (And don’t whatever you do get the embargo date wrong!).
Tip 9: Sometimes stuff happens… If it does, take a measured response.
Sometimes what happens is out of our control. I said above that no journalist sets out to write anything but the truth, but sometimes mistakes happen. Everyone on the panel agreed that these mistakes are very rare so don’t worry! Mistakes can happen for a number of reasons including:
- A misunderstanding. Journalists read scientific papers and draw the obvious conclusions. Unfortunately what a scientist may think is obvious is not always what is obvious to the public.
- There are layers of editing after the journalist has written the story. The title will most likely change and some editing will definitely take place by editing staff. If wires are crossed and the editor doesn’t fully understand what the story is about, mistakes can be made.
- Sometimes people just make mistakes.
Whatever the reason you have a decision, do you ignore it and let it pass by or do you respond? If you decide to respond, and if it is improves public understanding of science then that is probably the best option, then take a measured approach. Write to the journalist or editor, or leave a comment in the comments section of an online story to explain what is wrong and why it is wrong. This is likely to result in a note in the corrections column, but might lead to you writing an opinion piece. Oh, a quick word of warning, if something is published and you wish to comment, whatever you do, do not read the other comments! There are sadly people who will just be rude for the sake of being rude and it is not worth your time responding or even reading their comments.
Tip 10: Get involved
If you are keen to promote science to a wider audience don’t hesitate, get involved! There are lots of opportunities out there. “The Standing up for Science” course from Sense about Science is brilliant and very inspiring and is a great place to start. They also run a couple of amazing campaigns like the #AskforEvidence campaign which are easy to get involved in and require little time. STEM ambassadors are always in need of scientists and engineers to run sessions and do talks on what it is they do and plenty of support is provided! The
Pint of Science Festival puts scientists in pubs (Handy for Dutch courage if you need it!) to talk about their work and takes place in loads of cities across the UK. There are many, many more opportunities and self-propelled things that you can do: Get on twitter, write a blog, contribute to a shared blog or organize a couple of talks yourself! Where ever you feel comfortable starting, go and do it, you won’t regret it!
Many thanks to the panel members below for all of their tips, it really made for a great course!
Ross Barker – Senior Communications officer at the University of Glasgow
Lisa DeBruine – Reader in the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow
Eleanor Bradford –Health correspondent for BBC Scotland
Lizzy Buchan – Health correspondent at The Scotsman newspaper
Lindsay Hogg – Senior investigator Scientist at MRC Social and Public Health Science Unit, Glasgow
Olivia Kirtley – PhD student in Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory, University of Glasgow
Victoria Murphy – Sense about Science programme manager
Prof. Miles Pagett – Professor of Optics, University of Glasgow
Kirsty Park – Reader in conservation biology, Stirling University
Peter Ranscombe – Freelance Journalist and Editor.
Joanne Thomas – Sense about Science projects and events officer