Advice on dealing with the press
By: Emma Cunningham
If you’re about to publish something interesting and you think you may be likely to get some attention from the press – be prepared - prepare a press release and think about how you might respond to the sort of questions you could be asked in a phone interview. It’s worth the effort: ultimately it allows you to direct the angle the story takes, provide the sort of information you might want to see published and avoid the pitfalls as on the odd occasion it can go wrong.
Follow the links below for general advice on how to get the best outcome.
How to write a press release
There’s a standard structure for press releases that journalists expect. This is:
- TITLE - think of a catchy title that will grab attention – journalists may get a hundred of these in one morning – use something that will stand out - it doesn’t have to be sensationalist but it has to catch the interest of someone who isn’t a scientist.
- DATE - It’s essential to put the date at the top – or better still – forward date it and embargo it – no one wants to think they’re dealing with old news and today’s news is old news because it won’t appear until tomorrow.
- CONCLUSION - The first sentence should immediately tell the journalist what the news is – start with your conclusion – and if you can - what it means for the reader.
- WHO, WHAT… - The second paragraph fills in the detail – often called the who, what, where, when, why (and sometimes how). Most people spend no more than a minute reading an article – you therefore have to get the information across in a succinct but captivating way. No jargon – no technical words.
- QUOTE - The third paragraph is the place for a quote – this presents a human touch and allows you to continue telling the story in your own voice.
- BODY - Then you can provide more details (often in more quotes) in subsequent short paragraphs. Ultimately people want to know what the story means for them so find the human angle if there is one or identify why this is of interest to the general reader.
- END - Finish the text of the press release with “Ends” on a separate line.
- CONTACTS AND DETAILS - The last thing to add is a “Notes for editors” – include contact details (journalists prefer a telephone number and not an email as they are often working to a very tight deadline – minutes and hours rather than next day - and include any other facts and figures editors may need to know such as funding information if it’s not included in the text.
- LENGTH – if all that’s on more than a page, it’s too long.
We’ve included a few examples on the following pages to see how it’s done but have a look at the next few links to see how a press release and article is dealt with to help you write one that optimises the right content being published.
Sample press releases
Biologists clock on to why seasons affect our state of mind
STRICTLY EMBARGOED UNTIL 00.01 GMT MONDAY, 23 APRIL, 2007
Scientists have for the first time identified a part of the brain which co-ordinates the annual biological clock that affects how we deal with seasonal change.
The research will help our understanding of the causes and consequences of seasonal affective disorder, workings of metabolic mechanisms that make us put on weight and the physiological changes that occur when we fly across time zones into different seasons. It could also shed light on why we crave more food in winter.
Dr Gerald Lincoln, of the University's Centre for Reproductive Biology, said: “Our daily body clock is an amazing system. Most of the cells in the body have their own internal clocks - whether in the liver or the brain - yet they are all co-ordinated and nicely synchronised with the outside world. This is done by a special pacemaker in the brain that acts as the overall conductor.
“Our research has focused on the more difficult longer-term clock that measures the seasons. Surprisingly, the circannual body clock works on a 10-month cycle. This means that our cells need to be radically reset to make sure that we are in sync with the outside environment and the changing seasons. Interestingly, we reset our body calendar every summer, when increased light inhibits the production of melatonin. This could partly explain why the arrival of sunshine now in spring makes us feel so much happier.”
To analyse the patterns of the different clocks, researchers looked at the biology of 50 Soay sheep under controlled conditions. The breed, which dates back to the Bronze Age and survives on St Kilda, is considered to be one of the most primitive of our livestock. Their body clocks appear to be like the “wild-type” unaffected by cross breeding throughout the centuries.
Dr Lincoln said: “While our daily - or circadian - body clocks anticipate the change between day and night, our circannual clocks anticipate the seasons as we orbit the sun. As our clocks are pre-set and individual, this explains why some people are larks and others owls, and why some suffer severely in winter.
“Now we know the cells that coordinate our body calendar, we have begun to identify the specific genes that regulate long-term timing. By doing this, we hope to find new clinical treatments. It could be beneficial to those working night shift, who suffer poor health and have reduced life expectancy, as well as looking at how our metabolism is regulated throughout the year. The calendar genes could even provide new insight into the most basic timed mechanisms of DNA repair and aging.”
For more information, please contact:
Tara Womersley, Press and PR Office
Tel 0131 650 9836 or 07816 481 510
Gerald Lincoln, Centre for Reproductive Biology
Published by Communications & Public Affairs
The University of Edinburgh Centre, 7 - 11 Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, Scotland EH8 9BE.
Unless explicitly stated otherwise, all material is copyright The University of Edinburgh
How to conduct a phone interview
A press release is likely to be followed up by a telephone interview – so how do you deal with this to ensure a good article is the end result? Again – the same main points apply – be prepared and keep things simple – avoid jargon - think about what to say ahead of time and think about what you’re saying on the phone.
1. Whom are you speaking to?
First take a note of whom you’re speaking to and where they’re from so you know how to pitch it and what angle they might take.
If you can’t speak then or don’t feel prepared say you’ll phone back in ten minutes – but do just make it ten minutes - be aware many journalists will be writing several pieces in one day so time really is precious if they have to get all the articles submitted to their editor by mid afternoon.
2. The questions
You are likely to be asked some standard questions – and your responses will often be taken down word for word (shorthand is a standard journalist skill) so think about what you would answer ahead of time – and how you might phrase it i.e. how you would like to see the information written in an article.
The sorts of questions you’re likely to be asked fall into a couple of general categories:
‘So what have you found’ questions – tell them the equivalent of the first line of your press release.
‘Why is it news/important/contentious?’ questions - equivalent to your second paragraph etc.
‘Does this mean the same applies to humans’ type questions – think about how you would describe why people outside your field should find your research important. If your work doesn’t apply to humans in the way the journalist is asking, think how you would steer away from anything inaccurate but be prepared to give an alternative bit of information to fill this niche – that human angle/interest again.
3. The quotes
Often the main point a phone interview is to get a good quote as well as fill in the detail. Again think about the quotes you use in your press release and provide something for the journalist to fit into the format he/she is writing for – have your sound bytes ready.
Something to be aware of is that the interview starts as soon as you say hello and continues until you hang up (or if it’s a recorded interview somewhere – from as soon as you're hooked up to the mike and testing until you take the mike off – and if you're dealing with something contentious over a drink in the pub afterwards it doesn’t end 'till closing time as even the chit chat can crop up in print at a later date. Journalists aren’t all out to get you but we all know of a few people who have been caught out saying something as a joke at the end of an interview while chatting with the journalist that has later cropped up in text to haunt them.
4. The real story
Be prepared to swing the story back round to what you think are the key points if it’s going astray – correct in good humour and move off again in the right direction.
And if you make a hash of it don’t be afraid to say “I’ve explained that really badly – let me try again” – that’s in the interests of both you and the journalist.
This makes it all sound quite daunting but don’t be put off – if you’re prepared it’s easy and its much better to be available - that way you can emphasise the points you want to get across and ensure journalists get quotes from you and not your competitors or someone else who is invariably less qualified to speak about your work than you.
How the media works – and fitting your information to suit
The difference between the way the public hear about science and the way the come into contact with, say art or politics, for example, is that science tends to be explained only through a third party– there are few platforms for scientists to speak to the public directly – hence why we need to work with the media.
But we have to realise that this brings together a group of people with very different agendas. So understanding a bit about those different agendas can help you pitch your information in a way that is most optimal to meet the requirements of all those different interests and therefore having something published or broadcast that is accurate.
1) As scientists, our agenda is hopefully that we want to pass out accurate information to a wider audience. For example scientists in a zoology department may be getting figures on a daily basis from the government on where the latest cases of foot and mouth disease have occurred and trying to predict how the disease is likely to spread over the next few weeks – their results predict what MIGHT happen when different sets of conditions are met – but trying to pass on all the relevant information to a third party with no previous knowledge of the modelling techniques or assumptions being made is difficult.
2)The reader wants to know the facts but be either entertained and informed or both in three paragraphs without any need for any previous knowledge of the subject.
3) The journalist is trying to compete for limited space in the paper or magazine so has to write to impress their editor who will often cut or change what the journalist has written to fit into the space available – see later.
4) But the format is basically decided by the newspaper or television programme or who ever is presenting the information. In the case of the newspapers - the main aim of any newspaper is to sell as many copies as possible – basically they want to sell advertising space where they make their money and they need good stories to put the adverts around. Then there’s the different political slant of the newspapers – when Labour was proposing the hunting ban and the supporting research was being presented, it would be natural to expect the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph to put a different slant on the research that assesses the welfare implications for animals involved simply by reporting different aspects of the work. Specialist magazines and television or radio programmes may have fewer factors pulling the story in different directions but they still have to entertain. Presenting accurate scientific information, within the constraints of a good story that sells newspapers or captures the attention of viewers, can lead to a very confusing message.
BUT AT LEAST knowing where each side is coming from can help to make sure that things are explained in a way that can keep both sides happy and hopefully increase the accurate transfer of that information.
So – after your press release goes out, the phone interview is done – what happens?
Some science journalists will send an article back to you to look at – this is rare and frowned upon by editors so honour the fact they are doing it and try and get it back to them straight away, i.e. generally within 10 minutes of them faxing it to you.
Articles go through several stages after they’re submitted by the journalist – first they go to the editor who may change to suit – then they go to the subs who fit them onto the page (often around appropriate advertising) who will cut the article to fit. So try and keep the story simple so it doesn’t get distorted along this process – you may explain the background to the journalist so he/she knows how to edit appropriately but subsequent editors have to rely on the text.
Unlike the way we’re probably used to writing in papers – start with your conclusion and build down to your less important information as chances are most of it won’t get read unless attention is grabbed at the beginning. The same applies when attempting to write articles for the paper – when preparing an article for press – if it doesn’t fit to the required space articles are simply cut from the bottom - so make sure your article makes sense if this happens and don’t leave a great conclusion to the end!
Yes, things do sometimes go awry - for example:
Take a recent research article on reproductive allocation that demonstrated that letting female birds mate with the males they preferred led to greater reproductive investment resulting in larger eggs and chicks in better condition.
The standard news release from Nature resulted in an article in a Finnish newspaper which, roughly translated, presented the argument that if females invest more in the offspring of attractive males – then thin, narrow hipped women who want to have an easy birth should go out with ugly men. Entertaining yes, accurate – no, though the average reader could probably work this out for themselves! But it missed making the point that other papers that had been targeted with a press release from the authors accurately conveyed - the take-home message that allowing animals to exhibit their natural behaviour not only helps animal welfare but can increase productivity as well. Needless to say the article in the Finnish paper was written by a male columnist but without any photo at the top of his page!
Dealing with the media can be a daunting prospect but ultimately it’s something that all good scientists have a responsibility to do well. We hope the advice on these pages is of help and you can hear more about dealing with the media at our postgraduate workshops attached to our Easter conferences. There are also numerous media training courses available for scientists organised by the press offices in universities, the research councils (NERC, BBSRC, etc), The Royal Society and The British Association for the Advancement of Science (the BA - they organise the annual Science Festivals). This gives you the opportunity to try out and practise all the media skills you need before you do it and are a great way to prepare if you have some good research about to be published.
Enquiries should be directed to the Secretary of the Media & Policy Committee.