My recent post on the media coveragea of my paper on theropod feeding generated a huge amount of interest. Of special note by some outside observers were the comments of Charles Q. Choi who had interviewed me for his article on my work, and later dropped into the comments thread to talk about communication between scientists and journalists. Now Charles has kindly accepted my invitation to return to the Musings and work up his comments into a guest post on advice for researchers writing a press release for the media. Obviously what you want to communicate as a scientist is not always what they want or need to hear, so knowing what the other side consider useful and what is not is incredibly important. Charles is a freelance reporter who has written about science for Science, Nature, Scientific American and The New York Times, among others.
A good press release, in many ways, is like a good bit of science journalism, which is why many of the best press officers had careers in journalism beforehand. A science press release should fulfill two functions — it must explain the technical details of your research in a clear, accurate manner for reporters, and it should ideally present a tale with characters, a beginning, middle, and end, and that answers the five Ws (who, what, where, when and why) for the readers.
The explanation of the technical details of your research typically takes up the body of the press release. Basically, retell your paper start to finish in lay language. A good rule of thumb for how to do this is to describe your research as if you were talking with an uncle or aunt who, while being relatively bright, is not a scientist. Be as clear as possible as to how you reached your conclusions — describe your methods and why you did each step and not something else. As a reporter, I know I like numbers, so put those in — ages and dates, length and width and weight, and so on. Provide analogies and comparisons to give a good idea of how impressive a finding is. You don’t need to put in descriptions of how, say, FT-NMR works — Wikipedia can help out with that nowadays.
When presenting a tale regarding your research, summarize as much as you can in one to three sentences and make that the first paragraph of your release. You want something that will grab the attention of reporters and readers. If this proves difficult, well, now you know what reporters have to do every day. Throughout the press release, describe what is most interesting about the research — not just to yourself, but to your field, and to a lay audience. Point out any possible criticisms others might have of the research and address them in your release. Give context as to why this research was done and how this advances knowledge within the field. Give a few ideas as to where research might go from here.
A good place to start if you are new to writing press releases are sites such as Eurekalert, Newswise and AlphaGalileo, which science journalists often comb through for science-related press releases. Read some of those for ideas.
It should be obvious, but please provide a way to contact you both by email and phone. Also, journals have an annoying habit of publishing your paper when you happen to be in Guam or Burkina Faso or some otherwise remote place, so if you can, let reporters know in the press release if you are traveling, when you will be traveling, by what means they might contact you if possible, and other sources of comment if you are not available.
And photos and video are always helpful. Be sure to let people know who took each photo or video, for credit’s sake.
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