How a journalism course helped my science PR

24th October 2019

Matt Chorley, communications lead at the National Institute for Health Research UCLH/UCL Biomedical Research Centre, reflects on how a journalism course has benefited his medical and science PR.

I used to think dealing with the media was easy. In my first job which involved media relations, my press releases were widely picked up, letters to editors were usually printed, and I never had a shortage of TV and radio bids.

Coverage was sympathetic and shaped the wider debate.

But looking back, there were a specific set of circumstances which made dealing with the media feel straightforward in that role.

I was working for a body which represents A&E doctors, at a time of record A&E attendances. A&E pressures were in the spotlight, and as the voice of the profession, we were the obvious place for journalists to come to and we had a clear set of messages which no-one really disagreed with – we wanted more A&E staff, more support for the workforce and increased front line funding.

It also helped that we had a wide pool of media-savvy spokespeople. So while things were tough on the ground for the people we spoke for, cutting through in the media wasn’t difficult.

As I gained more media experience in other roles I realised things aren’t always as straightforward.

Working for a group which raises awareness of alcohol harm, I was dealing with an issue that was less prominent so harder to secure coverage for. When I did get media interest, I had to deal with more sceptical questions: weren’t we just trying to ‘nanny’ the public?

My role at a medical research centre (where I am now) also threw up challenges: like how to find a way in to complex science which may not appear to lend itself to easy communication.

Encountering these challenges I learned the importance of a number of skills: being creative in crafting media opportunities, finding the best way to frame a story (often leading with the human angle) and anticipating difficult questions.

But while ‘on the job’ experience helped develop these skills, I also thought: as it all comes back to how I engage with journalists, it would help if I learned to think more like a journalist myself.

After all, there’s a reason many former journalists move into PR.

With this in mind, 12 months ago I enrolled in a course in news journalism at the London School of Journalism. It’s a broad introduction to journalistic skills across print and broadcast – with a jobbing journalist as a personal tutor.

I’m coming to the end of it now, and it has benefited my science PR in a number of ways – and beyond sharpening the skills I mentioned above.

First, it improved my newsgathering. Understanding how journalists build and maintain contacts, use calendars and monitor social media improved my ability to find strong stories across my research centre.

Second, my writing improved. I learned to hone in on the important details of a story and find the right angle for stories involving complicated science. This improved my pitching.

Third, I became a better interviewer. I now ask my researchers more of the right questions (including the controversial ones) – anticipating what journalists want to know. I also get better patient case studies.

Fourth, studying the Editors’ code of practice gave me an understanding of how journalists should relate to research participants who agree to talk to them.

Finally, the course helped with work/life balance, a topic which STEMPRA held an event on this year. It provided something other than work to focus on.

In sum, it’s been well worth it. It’s put me in a better position to engage with the media – whatever the prevailing circumstances.

At a higher level, it reminded me of the importance of professional development.

And I’d encourage those reading to think about what development activity you could do yourself – whether it’s ‘learning by doing’, a more structured course, or something else.

It can only be a positive experience – and, like my own, may benefit your work in more ways than you can predict.

Matt Chorley

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