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Lessons Learned: My First Press Release

epeters.jpgBY EMILY PETERS

As a scientist raised by two journalists, I can't help but feel that scientists have an obligation to communicate their research to nonscientists. To honor this responsibility, I have tried throughout my career to prepare myself for this critical but daunting role. I've taken media and communications training, joined Toastmasters International, and given countless research presentations to practitioners.

Unfortunately, nothing prepared me for my first press release.

This summer, for the first time in my career, a science journal wanted to write a press release about my research. I was thrilled! And then I was scared. What if a journalist actually called me? What if several journalists called me? What if they misinterpreted my science? What if I sounded like a fool?

Despite my fears, I plunged ahead. But not without making a few mistakes, waking up panicked in the middle of the night, and even issuing a call to stop the presses.

Fortunately, my story ended well. Minnesota Public Radio, the Star Tribune, KSTP, Michigan Public Radio, American Geophysical Union and others ran stories about my research. Most importantly, the coverage was scientifically sound.

It is my hope that by sharing my "lessons learned" I can help ease this first press release experience for other early-career scientists. As scary as it was to relinquish control of my science to a journalist, it was an important step in fulfilling my commitment to communicate science to the public. I can't wait to do it again!

Lessons learned:

1.    Ask co-authors for advice. Get a more experienced scientist involved in the research to advise you on the press release process. More specifically, ask them to review and edit the press release. Generally, I've found that the more senior the scientist, the more wary they are of talking to the press. Don't let this discourage you, but be mindful of their advice. Most senior scientists have learned from their own battle scars as well. Their main objective will be to get the science right.

2.    University communicators are there to help you. Get these communication experts involved as soon as you suspect your research may draw media attention. These people not only are trained journalists, but also work with scientists all the time. They understand how hard it can be to translate years of complicated research into a few sound bites or sentences. They truly want to help you tell your story in the most interesting, accessible and accurate way possible. They also serve as a point of contact and filter to the outside media world. Let them do their job and help you through this process.
3.    Clarify your message. Before ever speaking to a journalist, write down your main message in simple language. What question did you answer with your research? What did you find? What methods did you use? What are the broader implications of your work? Answer each of these questions with bullet points or in one to two sentences only. Spend more of your time thinking about how to translate your results into simple sentences than explaining your methods. Journalists mostly want to know your punch line, not how you got there.
4.    Anticipate potential extrapolations of your work. The media will push you to simplify and extrapolate your results beyond where you are comfortable. Spend time anticipating these types of questions and formulating a response beforehand. Remember, your goal is to make sure the science is accurately portrayed. The media will sensationalize whatever they can; just force them to do it within the confines of what your results actually say. I still cringe at the MPR headline about my research, "The suburbs' quiet war on CO2", but at the same time I can appreciate its superior attention-grabbing quality compared to the one I wrote, "Continuous measurements of net CO2 exchange by vegetation and soils in a suburban landscape." Even I would rather read the story about the CO2 war!

5.    You can ask questions, too. If a journalist calls you, hurray! But before you answer any questions, ask them to describe their assignment. Familiarize yourself with the situation. Who do they work for? Who is their primary audience? When will the story run? In what format (blog post, printed article, radio)? How will they conduct the interview? Can they share interview questions with you ahead of time?

6.    You don't have to answer a question. Politicians do it all the time, so why can't we? If you don't feel comfortable answering a question or feel a journalist is pushing you in a misleading direction, simply say, "At this time, I'm not comfortable answering that question." Then emphasize or reiterate your mains points (see #3). Keep the conversation focused on what you think are the main findings of your research.

7.    Have fun! Embrace the whole process as a new learning experience in your career. It's OK to make mistakes. Who knows, you might even reach a new audience that pleasantly surprises you.

Emily Peters is a forest ecologist for the Institute on the Environment's Boreal Forest Resilience Project. Photo of Emily Peters in research mode courtesy of the author.

Sustainability Education: An Every-Class Act

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Summer is the season when many Minnesotans think about taking vacations. Although a few travel to faraway lands and learn about different cultures, many of us think about going "up north," to cabins, state parks or the Boundary Waters. This year experts on sustainability from across the University of Minnesota and two other institutions found a way to bring work and an up-north vacation together into a fun-filled outdoor learning experience.

Sustainability Across the Curriculum was a two-day event at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, a University-owned research site a few miles outside of the Twin Cities. The goal of the event was to introduce professionals across all disciplines to the concept of sustainability and to encourage them to integrate it into their coursework and daily life.

When you hear about sustainability conferences, you probably think of the usual mix of attendees: ecologists, agriculturists, environmentalists. This conference, however, was anything but usual. Faculty from languages, biology, business, design, political science and anthropology were all represented. The conference also brought together participants from all of the University's five campuses and beyond. It was truly a comprehensive event.

The interdisciplinary nature of the workshop was one of the most talked-about aspects of the weekend. Cedar Creek education coordinator Mary Spivey said one of her favorite parts was "realizing the extreme range of backgrounds of the participants." Jim Zaffiro, a participant from Central College in Iowa said, "My favorite part of the workshop was getting to know people from so many interdisciplinary departments." Beth Kautz, an education specialist with the College of Liberal Arts Language Center, found value in "people coming in from so many different disciplines."

Coming from a private college outside of Minnesota, Zaffiro was able to offer a new and different perspective on sustainability issues in education. "It was really enjoyable and valuable for me to work with people from a university," he said. Although there are various limitations and opportunities in both public and private colleges, he added, "we don't live in different universes." The uniting feature was that they were all working toward sustainability.

"Sustainability at the University of Minnesota may be on the cusp of embracing issues of social equity and asking who the environment is for," said Beth Mercer-Taylor, sustainability education coordinator for the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and organizer of the event. The goal of the work, she said, is "to make a sustainable world for people." 

Workshop organizers are already discussing plans for next year. "I do hope we do it again," said Spivey. "I feel like we're onto something."

Photo courtesy of Keith Yanner

Rock, Folk and the Environment

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Used with permission from iaspmus-usEcomusicology-200x300.jpg

Just released by Temple University Press, anthropologist and Institute on the Environment resident fellow (and College of Liberal arts faculty member) Mark Pedelty's Ecomusicology: Rock, Folk, and the Environment examines whether music and musicians can help make the world more sustainable.

Pedelty explores obvious difficulties for environmentally conscious musicians, such as rock's need for hi-tech equipment and lots of noise, and more generally the music industry's reliance on overconsumption and stadium shows. The opening of the introduction reads, "U2 hates the planet.  At least their 360° Tour made it seem that way." At the same time, he explores entrepreneurs' and musicians' innovative efforts to alleviate the environmental consequences of musicking and to promote environmental issues. A strong advocate for participant-observation ethnography, Pedelty even formed his own band, the Hypoxic Punks, to see what pitfalls and opportunities environmentalist musicians face.

Read the rest of Eric Hung's review of Ecomusicology here.

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.


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