On interacting with the media

“I would like to see us say over and over again until the point has been made – that the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we have heard about in the past 24 hours – distorted, despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias, by the very process of compression that makes it possible to lift it from the doorstep and read it in about an hour.”

-David Broder – US Political Reporter (from Fiona Fox’s blog at the Science Media Centre, Aug 20th 2015)

Food for thought. Very realistic food for thought about the swiftness and urgency of the media cycle – though perhaps a bit more pessimistic than necessary, in my experience.

Since the start of 2016, I’ve been on an exciting media journey around my involvement with the Homeward Bound Project, as the press-release for my meeting with Angela Constance MSP was released and picked up in several outlets, including the National, the Times, and BBC Scotland radio. And it keeps going. I go to a sewing group on Thursday evenings, mostly with a group of women who are a good deal older than me, and I was (embarrassingly!) the celebrity of the night, as they’d seen me in the Oban Times.

It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind, starting with liaising with the fantastic people in the Scottish Government’s media team (thank you!), all the way through to speaking to journalists, and giving the bigger picture as people begin to pick up on the story. The press release went out between Christmas and New Year – a good time for stories like mine, as the news cycle tends to be a bit quiet, and it’s all happened from there.

While my story wasn’t specifically ‘science’ (e.g. not related to a new discovery or finding), I am a scientist, and while I would say I’m quite a personable scientist, it’s still sometimes quite painful to see your words in print or hear yourself on the radio. And when the facts aren’t quite 100% accurate, it makes the perfectionist geek that is the scientist inside me a wee bit agitated. But it’s been a really positive experience overall, and I’d encourage more scientists to get out there and share their stories, if for no other reason to inspire more people with the wonder and awe that is science.

So I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned over the past few weeks, in the hope that it might help more people get their science out there.

  1. The right angle can make a huge difference!
    This was a real biggie for me. When I was first given a place on the Homeward Bound project, I wanted to get out there and tell everyone, through any and all media outlets. If it was the Oban Times first, then so be it! But my colleague Euan in the SAMS communication department encouraged me to be patient, and a bit more strategic… with the right angle, this could be a really big story, and I’d get much more uptake, with much greater impact. Pretty soon, the angle came from a Scottish Government news item: Push to increase women in science. Bingo. Euan had some contacts in the Scot Gov media team, and we went from there. After a few weeks, I’d got an opportunity to meet Angela Constance MSP, and there would be a press release issued by Scot Gov (NOT SAMS!) about it. It helped that I was the only scientist based in Scotland selected – another ‘hook’ from the media perspective. We knew that the Times’ Scottish version would pick it up when the press release went out, but I had no idea that so many other outlets would also pick up the story. In fact, when a friend posted the article from the Scotsman on Facebook, it was the first I’d heard of it! Since then, there’s also been coverage in the National, Modern Scot, ComputeScotland, the Oban Times, Kingdom FM, For Argyll, and BBC Scotland Highlands and Islands. I also spoke to a journalist from Research Fortnight yesterday, so I’ll add that to the list soon! As ever, the angle was important in getting people interested.
  2. Plan plan and plan your interview!
    To get the story out there, I started with a brief video-recorded interview with the Scot Gov media team. I prepared, and on Euan’s advice, came up with three key messages to get across, both for the media release and in conversation with Angela Constance. I was ready and had it all covered… or so I thought! When they asked “so Raeanne, would you mind telling us a little bit about what you do at SAMS”, I was totally thrown off guard. It’s the simplest thing, but I stuttered and stammered, and eventually garbled an answer, to the point that I felt the need to email them afterwards and get across what I really do for a day job. Ouch. Looking back through my notes from the NERC Media Skills course I attended last spring, one of the key points was have a quick (<1 minute!) overview of what you do. It became incredibly obvious to me how important this was. Decide on a 1-minute job description, and stick with it! Since then, for each interview I’ve done I’ve made a mind map of what I wanted to say, and had it in front of me while I spoke to each journalist. This really helped me get my own message straight in my head, and allowed me to communicate it well – apparently this was particularly good on my BBC Scotland Highlands & Islands interview, which I was told needed almost no editing.
  3. Make sure the details are right
    This is a small, but obvious one. I’ve stopped counting the number of times I’ve had to explain that I am not Glaswegian, nor was I born and bred in Glasgow over the past few weeks. I’m not sure quite where that came from, but if you do get the opportunity to read over a press release, read it, and then read it again before it goes out. It will save you a lot of explaining later on.
  4. Don’t sweat the small stuff
    But  with that said, don’t sweat the small stuff! Seriously! Does it really matter if people read that I’m from Glasgow? So long as the message gets across about my project and about our goals and aims… not really. In the same vein, the title of the Times article makes me cringe every time I see it: “Female scientists overlooked, says explorer”. I don’t think I quite said it like that to the journalist, but the reality is that the journalists don’t write the headlines, and the headlines are written to catch the audience’s attention. And if it caught more people’s attention? Then again, it’s helped get my message across, as the rest of the article was really quite good.
  5. Print and radio – the differences
    Print and radio are different. With a print article, your quotes are put in context by what the journalist chooses to write, which often you might have less control over, particularly if the article is based on an interview, instead of a press release. All the more reason to prepare well and not mince your words… see #2 above! With radio, you will be recorded, and it’s your voice which will be transmitting your message. If the interview isn’t live (mine weren’t!), then there is an opportunity to re-answer a question and/or rephrase things if you mix up your words. Broadcasters aren’t out to get you, and want to make sure they get the best snippets from you for their broadcast. But at the same time, what you say is what you get – so prepare… again, see #2!
  6. A nice article can open new doors This is a key message. Since my story has been in the press, some fantastic opportunities have opened up. First of all, I’ve been able to talk about this project to a huge amount of people who’ve seen the article in the papers, or heard it on the radio, which is fantastic. I’ve seen a huge surge in Twitter followers (nearly up to 500!), and I’ve also been invited to be a ‘science hero’ for a primary school in Somerset, via my partner’s mother. Probably the most exciting is being invited to take part in a STEMETTES event, hosted by Accenture (read about it here) on the 28th of January. This is a real honour, and I feel really privileged to get to speak at such an inspiring event!

The positive bit is that I’ve had some really wonderful feedback from each piece pupblished. Of course I haven’t read the comments sections on the online articles – and I’m not going to take any of those comments personally if I do. It’s been a busy time, and a little overwhelming (I’ve got a day job too!), but absolutely worthwhile. So get out there and share your story or your science – who knows where opportunities may take you!

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