March 2011

Go ahead, brag a little

Learn how to work with your institution’s communicators and with reporters to tell the world about your research.

Ever wondered why the media picks up on certain research findings and ignores so many other (perhaps more scientifically important) ones? Or maybe why a colleague was highlighted in the campus magazine or company newsletter while you were overlooked? It usually has a lot to do with the personalities of and actions taken by the featured researchers themselves.

A recent post on “Overheard in the Newsroom,” a website where media types grumble about their jobs:

Reporter doing a phone interview: “Please slow down, professor. You’ve been researching this topic for a decade. I’ve been researching it since lunchtime.”

Getting your research news to the public isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible. The key is to create a narrative that can compete with organizational reportage of new hires, high-dollar grants and board meetings or media coverage of celebrities, sports, natural disasters, political snafus and crime. That means you have to be a good storyteller.

Most of the time, getting publicity starts with the formulation of a news release for the media or a story for an organizational publication.

Here’s how to get the ball rolling:

1. Understand the role of a news release or organizational publication. News releases are meant to entice reporters to write and film stories about your work. Organizational publications are intended to reach a broad audience too, including alumni and investors or donors. Both are usually written in language that the general public – not just your colleagues – can understand.

2. Get to know your institution’s communicators. Academic institutions, nonprofits, journal publishers and businesses employ writers and public relations professionals who can get your story to the media and other audiences. Some institutions have centralized communications offices; others have departmental or college-level offices; still others have campus- or company-wide magazines or alumni publications. (Tip: On your introductory e-mail to your communicator, the contents of which are described below, copy your dean or department head. A little pressure from the top can only help.)

3. Figure out how you fit into the media-relations process. First, work with your communicator to craft a news release. Then he or she will run it by the involved parties and distribute it to the media. Interested reporters interview you, ask questions, take notes, capture audio and video, and produce an article or segment. Neither you nor your communicator has control over when, or if, a media outlet will use the story. Nor will you or your communicator review the content in advance. That’s why it is vital to make sure reporters really understand what you tell them. (Note: You will have more editorial control if you’re working with an internal publication, but try to let the wordsmiths do what they do best. They wouldn’t dare come into your lab and instruct you on your work.)

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  • I am interested in pursuing a degree in Science Communication. Please provide possible programs (academic,training, and scholarship) which I can access.

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