Learning the dark arts of media communication

I’ve just been in Sydney doing a stint as Scientist in Residence for the Australian Financial Review, and I’ve picked up quite a few useful tips for getting research and academic messaging more effectively to a general audience.

Initially, I was surprised at how noisy and distracting the typical media workplace is. Lots of people chatting and exchanging ideas, surfing the web or watching the constantly-on TVs, and reading other newspapers and magazines. But then it dawned on me that this workplace is a satellite dish designed to capture current ideas and memes as they fly around the planet. It’s important that this context is captured and understood, as this is how news items are then pitched to tap into and leverage current zeitgeists.

andy_Web_2 credit Ryan Stuart:Fairfax Media
Prof Andy Lowe, Scientist in Residence with the Australian Finacial Review, image credit Ryan Stuart/Fairfax Media

But this is quite an alien environment for an academic. Typically academic ideas will be developed in isolation by reading other academic papers (in detail and a few 10s not skimming 100s of collated sources). Academic ideas and results may be discussed over coffee with colleagues, and if sufficiently novel, will be more formally presented at meetings and conferences where questions will follow, hopefully with more informal follow-up and collaboration discussion in the bar afterwards.

In the media workplace, the ideas are only presented after they have been through a collegial vetting and focusing process. The two modes of operation and communication are very different, but the two can work together. The media relies on good content and academics spend their lives developing sound and robust ideas and analyses, that can serve as this content. It should be a shoe-in to combine the two, but in my experience its not straightforward.

One model is for academics to become better versed in the dark arts of media communication. This path helps get academic and scientific ideas into the public domain (and helps combat the epidemic of fake news), can help draw attention to particularly research outputs (and promote circulation and citation of results), and can be tremendously personally rewarding and satisfying for those that venture down this route.

Here are some key tips I’ve picked up whilst being here at the Financial Review, and from a previous stint at The Advertiser, as Scientist in Residence.

1. Understand the context of your story
It’s as important to pitch your story within a currently trending topic as is the story itself. If it’s pitched to leverage a current trending topic it’s more likely to be read.

2. Present a balanced viewpoint
Your side of the story may be one side but there are likely to be others that need to be heard. Mention these sides even if they are then downplayed.

3. Validate your position with external interviews
This was a bit odd being an expert myself, but of course, I can’t cover all areas of expertise. For the story I’m writing today I’m interviewing a chef, an entrepreneur and the head of industry sector organisation.

4. Know the news cycle
Understanding the best time to release a media release so that journos have time to work up a story and get it into their publication is critical for impact. Typically publications will have a number of meetings during the day to discuss and agree on content, usually morning, early and late afternoon. If you release your media release mid afternoon it’s not going to go anywhere. Send out media releases in the morning or send out a day or so before with a release date to give journos time to frame the story.

5. Going exclusive
Consider whether it is better to do an exclusive with a large publication instead of just releasing a press release. Some of the best distribution we’ve had was from this route, particularly with large international organisations like Reuters.

ALowe w tiser crew
Prof Andy Lowe in The Advertiser newsroom during his stint as Scientist in Residence, October 2017. L-R Luke Griffiths, Valerina Changarathil, Richard Evans, Andy Lowe, Cameron England

6. Make friends with journos
They are people too. They are also interested in interesting content. I was surprised how welcoming both the News Corp and Fairfax Media groups have been to my terms as Scientist in Residence. Find the right person to support your piece.

7. Learn how to write
Short sentences are a must. No acronyms. Explain concepts and terminology in simple language. Use stories, anecdotes and cultural references to anchor points.

8. Write often
Get used to pitching your academic ideas to a general audience. Writing a blog or short piece on recently published papers can be a start. This will also give you a body of written work to draw on if you need to produce something quickly down the track and is a good practice to get into to improve your writing.

9. Find opportunities to work with the media
Working with communications and media people to create articles and get feedback will help you write for a general audience.

Many thanks to the team from the Australian Financial Review and The Advertiser for sharing their time, and to Susannah Eliott from the Australian Science Media Centre and Ramona Dalton for helping set up these experiences.

The Scientists in Residence program is run by the Australian Science Media Centre (info@smc.org.au for more info)

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