How to interact, and how to not interact, with the press

11 Apr

Proactive Interactions

What is a good story?

Straight from the journalists, from Escape from the Ivory Tower (Nancy Baron):

  • Jeff Burnside, NBC Miami News: A “wow factor,” affecting people’s lives, characters, visuals of course.
  • Cory Dean, New York Times: Human Drama, I love stories that say some known scientific fact is wrong, also quest stories.
  • Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post: A larger trend, something that has impact–something that matters, or gives insight into scientific or political process, gee whiz can be very interesting . . . oh and images and graphics.
  • Tom Hayden, freelance writer: Explanation of a common phenomenon that was previously unexplained, something concrete–something I can see or touch or smell–concept only is difficult to sell.
  • Chris Joyce, National Public Radio: Novelty, the unexpected, passion, irony . . . a story to make my editor love me.
  • Natasha Loder, The Economist: Specifics to back up big ideas, counter-intuitive.
  • Lance Orozco, KCLU Local NPR News: Interesting to Joe Six-Pack, with a take-away message, transcends the audience to have universal appeal, audio and pictures.
  • Ken Weiss, Los Angeles Times: New, “shows rather than tells,” reveals fundamental truth, interesting characters, interesting places.

Don’t forget: Those Darn Rhetorical Components

  • Who is your audience?
  • What is your message?
  • What is your tone?
  • What is the purpose?

On Press Releases

For the simplest introduction to press releases, I refer you to my friend and colleague, Ben Young Landis:
Writing a Press Release: Death by Six-Shooter

An example of a press release, in satirical format:
The Most Amazing Press Release Ever Written

For a site that is more specifically geared toward helping researchers thing about what should a press release contain check out Anatomy of an effective news release from

Last, but not the least, in fact, the longest presentation from the Hubble Space Telescope:
Press release guidelines for scientists

What is wrong with this release, just published today? What would you do different if you wrote the release? America’s Top 40: Research Priorities for Biodiversity Conservation


A press release usually is distributed by a public information officer (PIO) representing your university or organization and then goes out not only to the journalists that they have selected, but then also goes on the “wire” — the associated press — for all news outlets to have access to. Considering this, journalists get hundreds of press releases today, from the “wire” from PIOs, from their editor, and from individuals.

A press release is not the only way to share your news and/or get the attention of a journalist. Alternatives include pitches to specific outlets or journalists, letters to the editor, op-eds, and freelance writing (including blogs). Chapter 11 of Escape from the Ivory Tower covers this subject fairly well.

No matter where you reach out to, always include the basic elements of writing, the audience, message, tone, and purpose. And the most successful outreach will also have (1) a catchy headline, (2) a good story, (3) a timeliness element, and (4) a geographical interest.

Reactive Interactions

It happens. All the time. The press gets wind of something: something related to your research project, something related to your field, happens to be walking through your conference, or maybe your PIO put out a news release about your publication and you get a call from the reporter… As a good scientific communicator, you probably have your “message” in your head and ready to go, right?

Unless you can’t avoid it (like an on-the-spot in person interview), you should always take a couple of moments to compose yourself to prepare for an interview. (For example, “can I call you back in 5 minutes?”)

In Escape from the Ivory Tower, Nancy Baron provides a whole chapter (ch 9) about interviews. Some of the tips are worth repeating:

[During the interview] Remember the five Cs:

  • Concise. Use common language, brief sentences, and so on.
  • Conversational. A good interview is a dialogue, not a monologue.
  • Clever. Use examples, analogies, and visuals.
  • Correct. Put the onus on yourself to be clear. Periodically ask the journalist if they understood what you said.
  • Cool. Never loose it.

Know your message. Stay on message. Do not stray from your message.

If the reporter introduces a question or subject that you are not prepared to talk about, don’t feel obligated to answer it or ignore it. Acknowledge the answer, and then move the discussion back to your message.

And, whatever you do, do NOT, make a colorful remark about something that does not further your message. If you do, that will be what is quoted.

In the NPR story A Growing Risk? Endangered Plants For Sale Online (Feb 11, 2011) at least three people were interviewed each for, perhaps, an hour for a segment that lasted less than 5 minutes. One of the people interviewed was dismayed when the story came out and their story was not shared as they expected. See if you can guess which person went off message:

Note: Letters to the editor, op-eds, and blogs also provide outlets for researchers to respond/react to current issues in the news. Just as if you were acting proactively, make sure all your rhetorical and story telling elements are there, and things will go much easier.

Guildenstern: You can’t not be on a boat.  |  Rosencrantz: I’ve frequently not been on boats.  | Guildenstern: No, no… what you’ve been is not on boats.

Ruthless: “You can’t not be in the press.”
Scientist: “I’ve frequently not been in the press.”
Ruthless: “No, what you’ve been is not in the press.”

…Think about it.

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Posted by on Monday, 11 April 2011 in Communications


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