Ten Top Tips for Science Press Officers

15th March 2013

At the recent Stempra-BIS science press officer training day, Jen Middleton, Senior Media Officer at the Wellcome Trust, gave us her top 10 tips for science press officers.


1. Don’t sensationalise

It’s really important that you are clear about what the research shows but also what its limitations are. If the work was done in animals, you really need to say so. Otherwise you can give the impression that it was done in patients and that sends a misleading message that the research is more advanced than it really is.  Journalists gossip a lot and you don’t want to get a reputation for sending out hyped up press releases. It serves nobody and you’ll find it really difficult to get anything covered. But likewise, don’t just send out any old rubbish. Don’t be afraid to push back if you don’t think something is newsworthy. You should think about how people will react when they read it in the newspaper or see it on the news. If the research affects patients, do you need to let a patient charity know about the story if you think that they might receive calls? Do you need to set up a helpline number that people can call for more information?


2. Check your stats

The statistics and figures you quote in your press release can drastically affect the message that you’re trying to convey. Similarly, subtle differences in the way you describe a statistic can dramatically alter its meaning. If you’re in any doubt, you should check with the researcher to make sure that what you’re saying is still correct and supported by the findings of the research. Always include the absolute risk, don’t just quote relative risks. Beware of describing a result as ‘significant’. And remember that correlation is NOT the same as causation. I.e. just because two things plot nicely together on a graph does NOT mean that one causes the other.  If your stats knowledge is a little rusty, check out this handy ‘Making Sense of Statistics’ guide from Sense About Science. And if you’re still struggling, it might be a good idea to attend a workshop or seminar to brush up on your skills. Look out for upcoming Stempra events that might be relevant or the new Benchpress Project offers statistics training aimed at media professionals.


3. Check the embargo

If you’re press releasing research that is being published in an academic journal then chances are they will impose an embargo that you need to abide by. Make sure you’ve got confirmation of the embargo from the journal before sending out your release. Don’t forget to check the timezone and remember daylight savings! You should always quote the embargo in local time for the reporters you are sending to and make it clear whether it’s GMT or BST. (It’s ok to list the time in more than one timezone if you’re sending it out internationally as long as this is made clear).

You should avoid issuing a press release for immediate release unless you really have no other option. These stories tend to just fall into the abyss and rarely get covered. And it really annoys journalists. But, beware the arbitrary embargo. By definition, the embargo on a story lifts as soon as that information goes into the public domain. If you embargo a story that has already appeared online for the date of print publication, journalists are under no obligation to stick to it. If they find out about it, they’ll be really annoyed and less likely to trust your embargoes in future. (And potentially more likely to break them!).

If you miss the embargo for whatever reason (and the story hasn’t been covered elsewhere) you could offer it as an exclusive to a reporter you know will be interested in the story. BUT – don’t say it’s exclusive if it’s not.


4. Accept tracked changes

Sounds obvious but you’d be amazed at how many releases I’ve seen go out with all the changes still tracked. The last thing you want is all of your trusted contacts to see the wrangling you’ve been having with your academic over how to explain their findings.


5. Know your spokesperson

It’s really important that you know how confident your spokesperson is at dealing with the media before you put them out there. If they have a heavy accent or lack confidence in their language skills then putting them up for live TV or radio probably isn’t the best plan. Get to know them and their needs before the requests start rolling in.

If they need media training, there are lots of consultancies offering excellent services (just email the Stempra list for some advice and you’ll be inundated with pitches). But there’s also a lot you can do yourself. [SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT] The Wellcome Trust offers a free ‘Working with the media’ guide that is packed with handy tips.

You also need to make sure you know your spokesperson’s  availability around the time you’re putting out your press release. There’s no point putting something out right before they go on holiday for a month!


6. Be prepared

If you give journalists everything they need to run a story, they’ll be much more likely to cover it. And the first thing they’ll probably ask you for (after they’ve spoken to your scientist) is an image. If you’ve got images, make sure you’ve got rights clearance, caption and credit information together in advance. If there’s a person in the picture, you’ll need a model release form to say that they give permission for you to use it. You also need to check whether the images are high enough resolution for use in print. This can sometimes mean big file sizes so make sure you’ve got a way of sending them out too, without clogging up inboxes. Same goes for audio and video files. Yousendit or similar free file-sharing services can be useful if your organisation doesn’t have its own file courier system.

If the researcher doesn’t have anything appropriate, there are a few free image sources on the web that you might find useful, such as Flickr (make sure you search under creative commons licence). Or [SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT], you might find something useful in the Wellcome Images database that you could use.


7. Be available

As well as your researcher, you need to be available too! Don’t send out a press release right before you go on holiday. You should also make sure that ALL of your contact details are available on the press office pages of your organisation’s website. Journalists find nothing more annoying than getting to your website only to find that there is only an email address listed or even worse, an online ‘contact us’ form to fill in. If you are unavoidably unreachable when your release goes out, make sure you leave information for how reporters can reach your colleagues (and that your colleagues are appropriately briefed).


8. Know the news

It sounds obvious for a press officer to read the news but it can be easy for things to slip when times get busy. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on what’s happening throughout the day –This will help you to anticipate reactive calls you might receive and will also help you to understand why your press release didn’t get as much attention as you’d hoped, i.e. if the Pope resigns on the day your release goes out.

It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on what journalists are writing about and what subjects they’re interested in, which will help with…


9. Build relationships

Getting to know your journalists will help to build trust so that they know they can come to you for help with a story and will also make them more likely to cover your stuff. But it will also help you to know who you can trust with a difficult story. It’s about more than just getting drunk at schmoozy events (although that does help!). A quick meeting over coffee or lunch to find out more about what they’re looking for from you and what they’re interested in at the moment can work wonders.


10. Do your own PR!

Finally, possibly the most important point on the list! Make sure your colleagues internally know and understand what you do. They may be able to help you with newsgathering and building relationships with your scientists. A good way to get them to appreciate what you do is to make sure you feedback internally when you get good coverage for a story. Or likewise, if you manage to limit the fallout from a damaging news story. If they understand what you do and why you’re doing it, it’ll be much easier to get help from them when you need it most.

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