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Zebra mussels were big local news, as they had recently invaded a local lake, and were implicated as a cause of unexpected harmful algal blooms. Local news outlets heard about the research I was doing, and came calling. I was interviewed by a local newspaper, a local radio station, a local TV station, as well as regional NPR. Eventually CNN even stopped by. But not everything made it to air or print, and what did taught me some lessons. I’ve combined these experiences with some training I received at NOAA. Of course, the media is rapidly changing (goodbye newspapers), but the general lessons apply to any venue.

Lesson 1: They’re not interested in graduate students.The bigger the outlet, the less they care about graduate students. Never mind that it may be you who is actually doing the work, your major advisor is likely to get the credit. Case in point, the Detroit Free Press:

newspaper

That’s me holding the rock.

Lesson 2: Make agreements with your collaborators. If you expect that the media might even be remotely interested in your work make formal agreements with your collaborators on how the press will be handled ahead of time. This is not unlike agreeing what papers will be written, and what the authorship list will be, ahead of time. The purpose is to prevent misunderstandings, and hence friction, and to at least try to control who gets credit for what. If it is your work you have a right to know what media outlets are interested in your work. You don’t want to find out later that your work has been described in a press release without your name given due credit.

Lesson 3: Engage the media office:Do you know how to contact your media office? All large institutions have at least one  public relations office and set of policies. More often than not, you will be required to direct inquires to them. You may have someone designated to handle public relations in your regional lab. You may be given permission to speak to the media following training. In my experience the only time to bother locating the media office is when you’ve been contacted. Of course, policies may not be what you expect, or not cover all contingencies. As an EPA employee, for example, I have to put a disclaimer on all my publications (including abstracts), that reads to the effect “Although this work was reviewed by US EPA and approved for publication, it may not necessarily reflect official Agency policy.” But if EPA has a Blogging and Tweeting policy, I haven’t been told about it, and managers at a reaosnalby high level don’t know either (and had to have Twitter explained to them).

Lesson 4: Stop the interview before it starts. Given that you have permission to speak directly with reporters, if one calls you get their name and affiliation. Then ask them what they want to know. Write down the questions, or at least the topic, and the deadline. Tell them you will get back to them. This serves two purposes. First, you then have the opportunity to verify that they are legitimate by checking with who they claim to work for. Second, it gives you time to formulate an answer. Never answer questions extemporaneously. This will prevent you from saying something your shouldn’t, stammering, or forgetting to include something important. Media relations professionals stress this point. You also want to know whether you will be quoted, how you will be credited, and if its for radio or television, will you be able to try a second “take” of an answer if you don’t like what you said?

Lesson 5: Be prepared.Consider your answers. Have notes ready. If it’s for TV then dress well. In other words take it as seriously as you would a job interview. You never know when your image  or voice may turn up. I once had the experience seeing myself as B-roll stock footage. While watching TV the subject of invasive species came up during the local news. My work wasn’t the story, but there I was in the background silently talking away while the anchors discussed some other story. I should have got a haircut.

Lesson 6: They’ll use what sounds good.I was interviewed by local TV about my research. It was your standard TV segment, with the anchor talking over footage shot at the lab. then they had a few seconds of me as a talking head. Did they pick me describing my work, or potential implications of the results? Of course not. They showed a quick comment I made answering the reporter’s question about how everybody wants to know how to get rid of invasive species, when its usually impossible. That is, it was the last thing I expected to be of value.

Most of this is common sense. And who knows what’s around the corner. Most of the stuff I described happened before bogging really took off. Now we can all be news outlets. The point is to take media relations seriously. Missteps 10 years ago are likely to be lost to time, but in today’s internet environment, nothing online really goes away.

Some resources:

Union of Concerned Scientists book on media relations

Uncommon Ground (blog)

Bad Science (blog)

International Dark sky Association (pdf)

Environmentwriter.org

A scientist’s bad experience with the press

A scientist’s recent media vs. science rant

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