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How a scientific discovery becomes a news story: Schoolhouse Rock never taught me this

When it’s time for scientists to publicize their work, where should they begin? Their institution’s public information officer can help them craft a press release and give their research the audience it deserves.

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You too could be featured in a stock photograph in your very own press release. Image via Ctorrear, Wikimedia commons

by Ian Campbell

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a personal dilemma regarding whether or not to publicize my own research. In response to a commenter’s question about how one would even go about creating a press release, Jessica Stoller-Conrad wrote a fantastic post on how to publicize your scientific work. I want to expand on her piece with a few of my own perspectives.

Nobody ever taught me how a scientific discovery makes it into the media until I started working in a newsroom. I suspect that most young scientists don’t know, either—it’s not part of any professional development curriculum that I’m privy to.  (Hint: there’s not some omniscient reporter who just knows when you’ve done something amazing.)

The key to publicizing your research is working with your institution’s public information officer, or PIO. Unfortunately, it seems like very few scientists even know what a PIO is, let alone who their PIO is. This shouldn’t be the case. Their job is to interface researchers with the media and be the front-line contact for outsiders interested in the work of the institution.

If you’re a researcher, try to establish a relationship with your PIO even before it’s time to trumpet your praises. Let them know you’re available for comment on certain topics. Next time a reporter calls about a story in your field, you could be at the top of your PIO’s list of people to contact. Additionally, not all news is breaking news—even if you don’t have an upcoming publication in Science, there are always opportunities for media coverage in outlets like alumni magazines or website features.

Enter, the press release.

First of all, what is it? A press release is a short document to give journalists a heads up that you’ve done something interesting. As tragic as it may seem, most journalists are not experts in your particular subdiscipline, so you’ve got to help them out a little. A good press release has a short, direct title, a few paragraphs explaining what the story is and why it matters, and some contact info for a reporter to follow up with you if there’s interest. Occasionally, a few snazzy photos will accompany the press release to help sell the story.

Usually, a press release is written by an institution’s PIO. When you’ve got some news worthy of a press release, you’ll work with your PIO to lay out exactly what you’ve done and why it matters. Often, the PIO will even include some direct quotes from you to help seed reporters’ stories.

Once a press release goes out, your PIO will probably send it to a few targeted journalists, but he or she will also likely post it on a news alert service like EurekAlert that aggregates press releases for distribution to newsrooms around the world.

Your press release may be embargoed, which means it is sent to journalists in advance of a specified date for publication. This gives writers a chance to interview experts ahead of time and craft their story, and in return they promise to wait until the embargo date to publish. Ever wonder how multiple news outlets seems to have such well-prepared stories all on the same day? (I think 7 of the 2012 Mass Media Fellows all covered a story on the genetics of supermarket tomatoes on the same day, thanks to a particularly enticing press release.) That’s because journalists got an embargoed copy of the story, often about a week ahead of time. The embargo system isn’t exclusive to science writing, but it is used by nearly all the premiere scientific journals.

So, when should one write a press release?

Any time you’ve got big news like a paper coming out in a big-name journal like Science, Nature, or the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or an article in a top-tier journal for your field, you should probably contact your PIO. If you’ve just received a major grant or begun a major industry collaboration (assuming it’s not confidential, of course), or if your research group is about to participate in a major charitable endeavor, a press release may be in your future.

Of course, there are plenty of other ways writers develop a story besides a press release. But when you’ve got something to publicize, a press release is a must—you can’t count on someone else to find you. Make sure the story of your science gets told!

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One comment on “How a scientific discovery becomes a news story: Schoolhouse Rock never taught me this

  1. Pingback: How To Become A Science Celeb: Tips For Being Interviewed and Writing Press Releases | Figure One

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