11 things I learned at the MRC Wellcome Press Officers conference 2014

22nd July 2014

By Anna Perman

1. Lists should never have ten things in them
Tom Phillips told us that 10 things is too obvious for a Buzzfeed list. They like weird numbers like 43, 19 or 23

2. The press release isn’t dead
Almost the final word of the day came from ITV’s retiring Science Correspondent Lawrence McGinty, when he was asked whether the press release was dead. He categorically said no – how else are you going to tell hundreds of people the same thing at the same time?

3. Tap other peoples’ contacts!
Lots of us know how to get coverage in the UK, but targeting outlets overseas in unfamiliar news environments are a bit more of a challenge. Daisy Barton of the Lancet and Katya Nasim from Kings College London shared their words of wisdom about how they worked out what international outlets to target, and how to get hold of journalists. Daisy said tools like Google Translate and the BBC’s country profiles were amazing, and Katya Nasim found a personal visit to India was a massive help, but it’s also worth asking the scientists themselves, their institutional press offices, local PR agencies and newswires, or even the country’s British embassy.

4. Invest in multimedia…
Sam Wood told the conference about the great success Newcastle University had with their film about research using macaques, while all the panellists from broadcast and digital outlets said it was really helpful to have images or film with the copyright sorted, either for pitches or for b-roll footage to use in their pieces.

5. …But don’t be afraid to ask first
There’s no point investing time and money in films or images if you don’t know that people will want them. Shooting a contact an email about the story and asking if they would be interested in seeing some footage is a good way to make sure you’re investing your time wisely!

6. Tailor your pitches, just don’t emulate a style
Journalists are much more likely to pick your press release up if you’ve put in everything they need to write an article, or could contact them with a good idea for a demo or an interview, but they want a bit of space to develop their own angle on it in their own style.

7. Animals are still a big issue, and not just cats
Will cats help you get your story covered? Know your audience. Lawrence McGinty can’t get enough of them, the BBC’s Nigel Patterson hates them. Buzzfeed just don’t want you to parachute them in where they aren’t relevant. But the Breaking Bad News session was dominated by animals of a different kind – press officers are still finding that animal research news is a tough beast to handle, but that being proactive about it was very much the best approach, to allow you to set the agenda for the story.

8. Journalists still like emails
A common question for journalists was how they like press officers to contact them. Shirley Wang from the Wall Street Journal still wants emails, Lawrence McGinty said he mainly read emails for stories, and hated ‘have you got my PR?’ follow-up calls. Meanwhile freelancer Greg Foot, Nigel Patterson, Nick McDermott from The Sun and Tom Phillips all said they preferred email, but if you have an idea, Twitter is a good way to put it under their noses too.

9. Be realistic about the outcomes
Be realistic with people internally that investing in PR doesn’t guarantee coverage – world events can push science off the news pages easily. But researchers should also know that they may not get a mention by name – all the more reason to make sure their press release quote is nice and juicy. As Nick McDermott put it, a scientist’s three years of work won’t get a mention if the quote in the press release is banal!

10. Make it relevant, make it shareable
The idea of making a news story relevant to an outlet’s readers is likely to be familiar to a lot of us. But Buzzfeed is a bit of a new beast for most press officers – they want content that is not just relevant, but shareable. This means that people want others to know they’ve read it, either because they’re angry or shocked, or possibly just to show off how clever they are.

11. Comment pieces are hard to get
During the International coverage session, the Wellcome Trust’s Mark Henderson asked whether anyone else had had any success getting comment pieces in foreign media. Stony silence ensued. Something for all of us to work on, and if anyone has any luck before next year’s conference, maybe they can come back and tell us how they managed it!

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