Making an impact: How to deal with the media

 

Image by PublicDomainPictures

Image by PublicDomainPictures

This isn’t a complete How To guide – there are loads of those available elsewhere – but 20 points to guide you in engaging with the media, in its various forms. They don’t guarantee success, and some of them might seem obvious, but it’s amazing how many people guarantee failure by not having thought about them.

1. Accept that there are costs and risks involved in dealing with the media, but understand that the benefits far outweigh them. Of course there are risks (of which for most academics, a fear that their work will be distorted and unfairly presented is the most significant) and there are costs (of which the greatest is time). But this is true of almost anything worth doing in life. The risks are, for the most part, pretty minimal – as long as you follow some fairly basic rules – and the costs are much less than many imagine. But there are eight benefits to doing so, and these far outweigh the costs. Sitting in your office, in glorious isolation, may well be safer and easier, but there’s a reason for that: it’s very dull.

2. Realise you are in charge. There isn’t one homogenous thing called The Media. The needs of TV are different to radio, which are different again to the press. Then there’s the difference between doing live interviews and pre-recorded ones, or between presenting or commentating or advising. You can pick the type of outlets and outputs with which you are most comfortable. If you fear freezing live on air, then don’t do live interviews; insist on pre-records, where you can stop and start again if you are unhappy with your answer. But if you have a particular concern with how your words will be presented and you worry about your message being distorted, then live interviews, whilst more scary, will give you extra control. (My tactic with pre-records is to swear profusely whenever I’ve given a poor answer, so that no one can use the clip – but you do need to remember not to do this on the occasions when you are going out live…) If you really fear being distorted, then don’t broadcast or brief at all; if you just write, you control every word. If your concern is gaining unwelcome attention, brief journalists on an off-the-record basis, with nothing attributed to you. I’ve done this, for example, with leader columns, when people ring up to pick my brains, and where (for various reasons) I’d rather not be quoted. You decide what suits you best.

3. Understand that different media has different needs, different costs, and produces different benefits. At its most mundane, some encounters with the media basically just consist of providing Statements of The Bleeding Obvious, or SOTBOs: ‘With Labour 30 points behind in the polls, Professor Cathy Bloggs of Grimeville University said: ‘This is not good news for Labour’’. It’s difficult to claim that this is helping to inform the nation. Still, SOTBOs don’t take long to do, can be useful practice in sharpening a message, and the University press office will like the publicity they generate, when they get picked up on the wires and get quoted in the press in Lower Buttsville, Montana. Better, though, is when you can get the media to discuss your research, at which point you shift away from being a responsive talking head. Even if all you do is brief, behind-the-scenes, you’ll still be helping to inform the wider debate, which should be the main reason for doing this.

4. Be willing to start small. A former colleague once said to me: ‘I’ve not done any media work before, but I think I’d like to write an op ed column for the Financial Times’. To which the only response is, to quote Austin Powers when he met Ivana Humpalot: I vana toilet made out of solid gold, but it’s just not on the cards now is it? Unless you get lucky (or you are related to Peter Snow), you are unlikely to be plucked from obscurity to have a weekly column in the Guardian or to present a six-part series at prime time on BBC1. So start off by doing local radio, writing for blogs, whatever you can.  It’s good experience, and will help you get used to the way the media work, and develop your own voice and skills. You should also do some media training – almost all universities will provide it – but however good the training it is no substitute to a bit of time spent in front of a microphone or talking to a journalist.

5. Make sure your work is accessible. Journalists don’t have access to stuff behind publisher’s paywalls – and even if they did, they mostly don’t have the time to read a full length 30 page article to work out which bits matter to them. If you are an expert in, say, counter-terrorism, and a journalist is looking for an expert in counter terrorism, how easy will it be for them to find you – and to work out whether you could help them  – using Google? If the answer is ‘not very easy’, then don’t be surprised if they don’t contact you. Make sure that you have a free-to-view, easily understandable, summary of your work online. If the full article is behind a paywall, you can still write short blog posts summarising it, explaining what you’ve found, or how it connects to wider debates – as long as Google can find that easily. In short, don’t write anything without putting a summary online somewhere, somehow.

6. Be proactive. Don’t just sit and wait for journalists to come to you. If you have things to say which relate to issues of the day (and if you don’t, what is the point of your work?), then promote your research to them. As well as formal press releases (the value of which I am increasingly sceptical about) a social media presence is now essential. Blogs, Facebook, and Twitter are all easy ways to disseminate your work – as are direct emails to journalists with whom you’ve built up relationships (on which, more below). This will help move your engagement with the media on from providing reaction to disseminating your research and changing the way the subject is reported or discussed. There’s a myth that journalists aren’t interested in this sort of stuff. It’s rubbish. Journalists love being able to report things that are counter-intuitive or which help explode some myth. You’ve just got to get it in front of them in a way that is useful.

7. Be responsive. You need to react to the media agenda and understand their needs. ‘I can do something next month’ (a quote I have not invented) is not a helpful response. In dealing with the media, you need to be willing to be flexible and adaptable. A journalist who contacts you about a topic will need the information quickly, probably the same day. The caravan moves on. Technology makes this easier. Skype provides good enough quality for most radio outlets, and blogs and websites allow you to collect summaries of your material in one place, where it can be seen easily. Once you build up a reputation, journalists will go direct to your website for material they need, without bothering you.

8. Build up relationships. Email journalists who write about things that relate to your work (‘enjoyed your article on X, if you write about it again, you might find this useful’), enclosing a short summary of your findings. (Unless they specifically ask for it, there’s no point in sending them full articles or similar). Sure, most won’t reply. But some will. Building up relationships with journalists will help in the future in getting your work out to them – they are more likely to read something sent to them by someone they know and trust – but it also makes it more likely they’ll report your work in ways you’ll be happy with. Contrary to the stereotype, most journalists aren’t out to stiff you – any misreporting of your research is more likely to be accidental than deliberate – but an on-going relationship with them makes even accidental misreporting less likely.

9. Don’t worry: it won’t be a re-run of Frost-Nixon. Academics often fear that any encounter with a journalist will be like a Jeremy Paxman interview, in which they will collapse under relentless hostile questioning. The truth is that most journalists will handle you with kid gloves. They’ll mostly be giving you softball questions, to get the best answers out of you. Unless your subject is extremely controversial – or you are being very provocative in how you are presenting it – you are really very unlikely to have a journalist try to kick lumps out of you.

10. Headline your findings. Academic work tends to be structured something like: introduction, background, method, findings. When briefing journalists – or indeed anyone outside of academia – you should flip the order. Start with the payoff: what you’ve found and why it matters, and then and only then (a bit) on how you did it. If you are putting together a briefing note, for example, the findings should not be longer than a page of A4, in bullet points or similar, and in easily understood jargon-free English. University Press Offices are (usually) good at helping with this if you find it difficult.

11. They’re interested in what you know, not what you think. Journalists have lots of people who can give them opinions. The reason they are interested in academics is because we are experts, because we know things they do not. Indeed, that is our only real authority to be taken seriously on any subject. This doesn’t mean you can’t have views – but they need be driven by what you know or can prove. There are some exceptions to this; once you get to a certain level you seem to be allowed to pontificate on any subject even when you know nothing about it – we might call this The Dawkins Effect, or The Jardine Threshold – but for the most part, the reason the media are interested in you is because you are assumed to have something you can add to the debate. That ‘value-added’ element is key, and should drive how you try to contribute to the debate.

12. Be clear about what you want to say. This is standard media training advice – but it’s the standard because it’s true. If you are doing any broadcast media – or being interviewed for a briefing – make sure you have thought about what it is you need to get across before the interview starts. And keep it short and punchy. Don’t go on air with a list of eight things you want to say. A standard, live, interview on Radio 4 will only require three or four substantive points. Other media may be even fewer. You will never need to say ‘and ninthly’.

13. Ignore the pompous and the prigs. You will, sadly, still find academics who will denigrate engagement with the media, and/or excuse their own lack of engagement on the basis that their work is just ‘too sophisticated’ for the media (with its implied criticism of the intellectual quality of your work). In a very small handful of cases it may indeed be true that their work is so brilliant and abstract that it could not sensibly be broadcast to others. Mostly, however, such comments are a mask for their own insecurities and jealousies. Such people are usually not very bright, and are working on stuff that’s pretty dull, and it is safer for them to engage in pointless academic circle jerks with other dull people than to engage with the wider world. Do tell them that, whenever you get the chance.

14. Don’t underestimate journalists. Journalists are not stupid or lazy (well, some of them are, but no more than the number of academics about whom exactly the same could be said); they are mostly very sharp and incisive, but they are generalists to our specialists and they work to time constraints most of us can barely imagine. Don’t patronise them. They will cut through blather and front pretty quickly.

15. Persevere. This won’t happen overnight. And, whatever advice you’ve been given, and however carefully you’ve followed it, things probably will go wrong on the way. You’ll do a duff interview. You’ll not be happy with the way a journalist writes your work up. You’ll get an angry letter from a listener who’s heard you on the radio and disagrees with you. But so what?

16. Be prepared to say no. Just because you want to help doesn’t mean you have to do whatever the journalists wants. If you’re just too busy, then say no. To begin with, you might want to say yes more than no, just to build up experience and contacts, but after a bit you’ll soon find yourself saying no more than yes, which is the correct ratio. And if you are at all uncomfortable about what the journalist is suggesting, say no, regardless of how prestigious the outlet.

17. If someone knows more about the subject than you do, then pass the journalist onto them. Once journalists – especially producers – have your details in their database, and know that you are reliable (by which they mean the sort of person who won’t soil themselves with fright when the microphone goes live), then the invites will soon start coming thick and fast. Many of them will be on subjects you know little or nothing about. These are usually best declined anyway – why go on to the media to discuss something you know nothing about? – but especially if you know of an academic who specialises in the area. It’s not a good experience watching someone else appear on TV commentating on something about which you, and not they, are the expert – although even worse is when they pass off your work and findings as their own. So it’s a fundamental academic courtesy to defer to them, and tell the journalist that they should speak to Dr Y instead. Sometimes the journalist won’t want to do that – either because they’re right up against a deadline and need something soon or because they’ve tried Dr Y once before and they did indeed soil themselves. Insist. Your job in such circumstances is to act like an academic pimp.

18. Unless they are a dick. Obviously.

19. Don’t treat it like an add-on. If you see engaging with the media as a troublesome extra, something that takes you away from your ‘proper’ job, then that is exactly what it will become. Instead, see it as an integral part of what you do: you research something and you tell the world about it. Obviously, there is a trade-off involved – and time spent dealing with the media cannot be spent doing something else – but if it means that over the course of your whole academic career you publish slightly fewer papers but you disseminate what work you have done much more widely, potentially to an audience of millions, then that is surely a trade worth making.

20. Enjoy it. It will be fun.

Philip Cowley

2 thoughts on “Making an impact: How to deal with the media

  1. A very down to earth and helpful list of suggestions (and attitude correcting eyeglasses) which I can second. It is worth the work and unavoidable bloopers that will occur – your name and school being misspelled among others (especially if they are Chinese press). The right-wing seems to have a natural affinity for ear-grabbing 30 second soundbyte factoids (not even facts much of the time) so we have work to do here!

  2. I’m glad you made point 17. I am often asked to contribute to stories about which I know very little – it is tempting to agree, to keep the University press office happy, but probably not a good idea. Last time I said to STV, ‘I can just about pretend to know what I am talking about and will do it if you are desperate’ (then recommended a colleague).

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