The changing role of the science press officer

6th January 2020

The changing role of the science press officer

by Fiona Lethbridge

At a sell-out event, 40 Stempra members came to hear from Fiona Fox (Chief Executive of the Science Media Centre), Clare Ryan (Head of Media Relations at Wellcome), Kirsty Walker (Director of Media Relations at UCL) and Craig Brierley (Head of Research Communications at the University of Cambridge) about the changing role of the science press officer.  The panel was expertly chaired by Rob Dawson, Chair of Stempra, and the speakers were brilliantly engaging.

Fiona Fox kicked off by raising the concern that we may be losing a specific breed of science press officers who came from a science background, had a passion for getting exciting science out to the public and a love of scientists, and who often shouted at the radio when they heard science being covered inaccurately.  Instead press officers are being hired for their experience in marketing, change management and strategic planning.  Fiona also questioned whether we ought to be worried at the move, in some press offices, away from the ‘media-first’ priorities we used to have, given there are now so many alternative routes available to communicate with different groups, including institutional websites and social media.  Fiona posed some thought-provoking questions: does it matter if fewer science media officers have an interest in science or the media?!; and what happens during a crisis in science or a public health scare – whose job is it now to help journalists and the public access top quality experts during a huge public debate or media storm?  Should we be worried?  Fiona is!

Clare Ryan said that given the changes in the media landscape it would be mad if press officers didn’t change too.  She said the new comms channels mean organisations can communicate directly with their key audiences without having to go through the media, which means that comms teams now have more power to influence their own organisations.  Clare also suggested scientists can’t really just talk about their science any more because facts on their own are not enough, and that being able to address topical aspects like work-life balance, research culture and LGBT issues is really important.  Clare said organisations can stand for a small number of things if they want to do them well, and that if organisations pick a couple of priority areas they can expand beyond just being of interest to science news journalists and can work with comment editors and others.

Kirsty agreed there had been a radical change in the pace of news and that a lot of people now access news via social media, but she argued news brands still absolutely matter.  She described UCL press team as news hungry and that they retain their prime focus on research communications.  Kirsty also explained that with their comms expertise the media team are able to advise senior management on other issues and priorities.  She reminded us what huge impact communicating via the news media can go on to have in other spheres, including influencing future collaborations and REF outcomes.  Kirsty said that yes we need to invest in upskilling press officers for various new aspects of the job, but that in terms of brand impact you can’t beat communicating via the national news media, and that there is more responsibility than ever on press teams to communicate accurately.

Craig questioned whether having a science background is important for science press officers.  He said the work of the Science Media Centre, in putting science journalists in touch with scientists on the big stories of the day, may be one of the reasons for the recent trend of some university press offices doing that less.  Craig said his press office gets fewer media calls than it used to, and questioned what the benefit to the university would be of responding to every request if all you’d get is a quote and a mention in one article, while also saying that not responding on the important issues risked leaving a vacuum for someone less reputable.  Although he said the press release wasn’t dead Craig described Cambridge as having stepped back a bit from the press release treadmill, because press releases don’t necessarily represent the way science works or the interdisciplinary nature of Cambridge’s research.  Craig explained that having a higher threshold for media work means they could tell the stories they really want to tell and via their own channels – often creating content for Cambridge’s own website and using social media for direct-to-public contact rather than working with the media.  He also explained that these newer digital channels allowed Cambridge to be portrayed in the way they want to (i.e. diverse) rather than the way the media might represent them.

After such thought-provoking comments and diverse views, there was of course lots of input from the audience!  One question was: what happens when there is the next GM or climate gate – if press officers move away from frequent contact with national news journalists and scientists, will we be less ready for the next crisis in science?  Some attendees expressed their dismay and concern that some press officers were turning away from the mainstream tabloid outlets that have the most readers and that reach the biggest sections of the public.

Another area that came up during the discussion was impact – how do we know what these new ways of communicating are actually achieving?  Nobody seemed to have an answer or a way of measuring how many people, or who, are being reached.  If the general public still get most of their information about science from the national news media, is it just a selected group – i.e. the science-curious – who seek out the other channels?  What does that mean for the public understanding of science?

This certainly won’t be the end of discussions and debates on this topic.  Questions that remained unanswered included: shouldn’t we as an industry check and measure how many people we are reaching when we only communicate via non-news channels?  Should Stempra provide training in all the new and trendy ways of communicating and in all the non-media elements of comms jobs, OR should science press officers fight back and put the argument to senior people in their organisations that the news media remains an essential route to the general public, and that focussing on strategy and change management should not be prioritised at the expense of a passion for science?

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