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!
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.