Helping your press officer help you

Are you a scientist who wants to enlist the media’s help in highlighting your research, but doesn’t know where to start? Read on.

Working with the media can be a great way to reach a larger audience. But science rarely becomes news by leaping off the pages of a journal and into a reporter’s lap. Much of the time, the media finds out about the latest scientific research thanks to the writing and hard work of someone called a press officer.

Here’s how to help your press officer help you:

1) Alert your press officer to papers in the pipeline. The earlier the better. At acceptance works best. The only way your press officer can find out if you have a paper in press is if you contact them. Once the paper is published, it’s already considered “yesterday’s news” and it’s too late for your press officer to help. Rest assured that your press officer is well versed in journal embargo policies. Their goal is to post your press release as soon after the journal’s publication date as possible, but not before. Contacting your press officer in advance of publication gives them a chance to do their best work.

2) Not sure who your university press officer is? A quick online search for “your university’s name” + “news and communications” should take you to a “contact us,” or “staff” page. Many universities have news writers dedicated to the life sciences, the physical sciences, etc. — these are the writers you want to contact. Your press officer may or may not have a background in your field. But what they do have — and here is why they’re important — is an understanding of how to craft a compelling story and write for the general public. If your university doesn’t have a dedicated science writer, or if that writer is swamped and only covers papers in select journals, or if for some reason you haven’t been 100% satisfied with their work, another option is to email the news writers at the agency who funded your research. If your research is NSF-funded, for example, you can find your press officer here:

3) Get feedback first:  When you do contact your press officer, it’s polite/professional to ask for their help in assessing whether your manuscript is newsworthy or of interest to general readers. Tell them why you think it is, but don’t assume. Send the manuscript or at least the abstract, and a brief note along the lines of “Let me know if you see anything here that catches your eye and I’d be happy to talk more.”

What happens next:

Your press officer will most likely translate your work into a lay-friendly press release for distribution to reporters and journalists. Press releases are the appetizers of the media world. Universities and other research institutions issue them in the hopes that the media will bite and then do a main course — not necessarily a longer article, but at least a main course in the sense that it reaches a larger audience. Sometimes the media bites, and sometimes they don’t. Why that is is a mix of timing, public appeal, scientific merit, and voodoo. If the press does decide to cover your work, interested reporters will contact you to arrange a phone interview or ask for written quotes via email, usually the same day or within 48 hours of when your press release goes out. Whether the media covers your story or not, your release will likely make the rounds on the web via the magic of online news aggregators. You can track where it shows up on the Web by setting up a Google alert using relevant search terms, such as your last name and key word from the headline: