Media coverage of your publications will increase readership among scientists and enlighten non-scientists about the value of the work you do. Only a minority of publications catch the attention of the press, but there are steps you an take to put your work in the spotlight.
When you first submit a paper….
Contact the press officer at your University. Describe your research in plain language and emphasize the potential applications. If there are any pictures or videos associated with your work, send those along as well. I’m not talking about figures. You’re looking for visuals that will capture the attention of someone scrolling through the news.
Think about any other details you can provide that make an interesting story. Is there something unique about the organism you study? Did you fashion lab equipment out of plumbing supplies? Did you travel somewhere weird or obscure? Was there a time when you thought you would run out of funding or everything would fail? A surprising eureka moment? An eccentric collaborator? To a non-scientist, the results are rarely the most interesting part of the story.
Here are a few examples of press release nuggets that caught my intention while I was reporting for The Washington Post as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow: a scientist marriage, slugs, the use of night-vision goggles, an unlikely collaboration, unexpected results, pheromones, environmentalism, and poop.
A press officer’s job is to help promote your work by writing an engaging press release. Not all of them are good at it. Work with the press officer to ensure the headline is totally free of jargon, provide analogies, and come up with clear concise statements that they can quote you on.
If you are struggling to find a way to make your work seem interesting or explaining it simply, enlist the help of an experienced science communicator. There are a few companies like Research Square that can help you. I envision a future where there are freelance science communicators whose services you can enlist for an hourly fee. Maybe I’ll be the first. Shoot me an email.
When a reporter requests an interview….
If you get an email from a reporter, respond immediately. They work on extremely short deadlines. Many news organizations will not cover a new study unless they can break the story the minute the paper is published online. That often means reading the paper, getting quotes, and writing a story within a single day.
They’re likely going to want to schedule a phone call. Before they call, prepare a few statements that concisely summarize what makes your research interesting and important. Give some historical context and interesting anecdotes. Speak slowly, especially during statements you’d like them to quote. But don’t be a robot. You have to be the interesting, relatable protagonist of your own science story.
Be patient. Do not assume they know anything about your research, but also don’t assume they’re stupid. They may understand perfectly but want you to restate things anyways, because the main goal of the conversation is to get good quotes.
Other points to keep in mind….
Don’t expect to see a draft of the story before it’s published or to review your quotes. To prevent politicians or corporations from influencing reporting, many news organizations forbid reporters from sharing drafts. If you’re worried they might not get the science right, send a follow-up email explaining it again, and make yourself available for more questions.
You may also be contacted by reporters to comment on a colleague’s work. The advice above still applies. Keep in mind that anything you say in an interview is quotable. If you say something you wish not to have quoted, ask to go “off the record.” If you would like to be quoted anonymously, use the phrase “on background.”
And relax! It is never a reporter’s goal to make you sound stupid or misrepresent you. They want you to be happy with the outcome so they can add you to their list of go-to experts.