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Communications

 

Introduction

If you are about to publish an interesting research paper, have reached a significant milestone in your research, are looking to recruit volunteers for your study – or just have an interesting story to tell – please let us know. We can advise on the best way to tell your story, help prepare a press release and even offer media training where appropriate.

Please try to give us as much notice as possible: if you are publishing a research paper, let us know as soon as your paper has been accepted. You will not be breaking the journal’s embargo policy by speaking to us in advance. We prefer at least a fortnight’s notice to prepare a press release or brief journalists. It is very difficult for us to get coverage for a paper that has already been published: journalists do not like to feel they are reporting ‘yesterday’s news’.

We will liaise on your behalf with communication teams from your partners – from other funders, universities and the journal. If you have approached a partner or funder’s communications team to request help, please let us know so that we don’t duplicate efforts.

Have a think, too, about whether you have any additional content that you can offer. Do you have any striking images or any footage of your research that we can use to illustrate your news story and pass on to the media to increase their interest? Please make sure you own the rights for any images that you pass on or have obtained the necessary permissions.

Not every story will be of interest to the national media or will be appropriate for us to feature on our website. We will tell you if we don’t think it’s appropriate and advise on ways to get your story out. It is important not to overstate the importance or relevance of your study just to achieve coverage, particularly if your research relates to human health, for example: think carefully of the impact that your story will have on the reader and whether it may lead to unintended consequences or  false hope.

Don’t forget, there are many other ways to tell your story – check out our Public Engagement pages for more information.

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What makes a story?

There is no hard and fast rule about what makes a story newsworthy, but here are some of the elements that usually help

  • Timing – does it coincide with an announcement, a larger story, an anniversary?
  • Superlatives – is it the first, the fastest, the largest, the oldest, unique?
  • Relevance – can people relate to the story, for example if it’s about cancer or using Facebook.
  • Novel, quirky or funny.
  • Human interest – do you have any patient case studies, is there an interesting personality at the centre of the story?
  • Conflict – is this a debate or an argument between different people?
  • A strong image or video.
  • The story alters or advances our understanding of the topic in question (it might advance it academically, but is it enough of a step to interest the public?).

Essentially, it all comes back to one question: “So what?” If you can’t answer this question, it probably isn’t a story.

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What is a press release?

One of the main tools that we use to communicate with journalists is the press release. A press release reads like a news story, with key information at the top and less important information further down. It is written in lay English – any technical terms need to be explained. It will not contain everything from your study, only the points that we consider the most important and most newsworthy. The perfect press release should answer all the questions a journalist may have – though they still may wish to speak to you to get the story in your words.

The key elements of a press release are:

Embargo

An embargo is a point in time after which a story may appear in the public domain. Journals usually set the embargo for academic papers – for example, Nature embargoes are always 18.00 GMT on a Wednesday.

Nearly all journalists abide by embargoes, so you can speak to them ahead of the embargo. However, it is worth reminding them of the embargo if one exists. Some publications have strict rules about when you may speak to a journalist. If in doubt, check with the Communications team or the journal’s press office.

A note of caution about the Sunday newspapers. They can be a useful outlet for stories that are not linked to journal papers, where the journalist has time to research a story in more depth, and often have more scope for features. But we recommend that you do not speak to them about academic papers currently in press – in particular, studies coming out the following week – unless you get confirmation from them in advance that they will not break the journal’s embargo.

Sometimes we issue a press release ‘For immediate release’, usually if a paper has already been published. However, this can reduce the likelihood of coverage significantly – this is why it is so important to let us know in advance if you are about to publish research.

Headline

This will sum up the story in one line.

Opening paragraph

The first paragraph is crucial to the press release. Journalists get hundreds or press releases each day and can spend only seconds deciding whether to read the whole release – if the story doesn’t grab them straight away, they may just hit delete.

Context

The press release will include some background context – the information you often include in the ‘Introduction’ of your academic paper. For example, a press release about type 2 diabetes might include a short description and statistics on how many people it affects.

Quotes

News stories almost always carry quotes and these are often taken directly from the press release – even if the journalist speaks to you about your study. Quotes need to be short, punchy and tell part of the story. We will usually draft a quote on your behalf, based on comments that you have made when we have spoken to you or emailed. If you are not happy with your quote, tell us and we will change it.

Contact details

We will usually only include the contact details of the Communications Office rather than your own details. If the research is widely picked up, this means we can help prioritise and accept/decline interview requests on your behalf.

Notes to editors

At the end of the press release, there will be a reference for your paper (if appropriate). We will also include ‘boilerplates’ (paragraphs describing the organisations involved – funders, universities, etc.).

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What happens next?

Once the press release has been issued, you may be contacted by journalists wishing to speak to you about your research in more detail. It is very important that you notify us if you will not be available to speak to journalists, particularly for a couple of days ahead of the embargo and on the day that it is published. If you cannot be contacted by landline or mobile phone during that period, then please try to suggest someone who can speak on your behalf.

It is impossible to predict the level of interest from journalists. The media have only a limited amount of space or airtime and stories compete for attention. Coverage may depend on what national or international events are unfolding in the run-up to and during the publication period of your story. Even if you have spoken to a journalist, the story is not necessarily guaranteed to appear. Some journalists may write several stories per day, only one or two of which are used. Stories can be ‘spiked’ – in other words, dropped. Similarly, a radio interview that has been lined up may be cancelled at the last minute. Sometimes spiked stories or longer versions of print articles may appear on a newspaper’s website.

If you do speak to a journalist, do not expect them to show you their article before it is published. If you want to ensure that you are not misquoted, establish before you speak to them whether or not they will let you check your quote. Some journalists will let you do so, but very few will send you the complete article in advance of publication.

If you are invited to do a radio interview, it will be either live or pre-recorded. You will usually be asked to go into a studio or use an ISDN line – this gives a much clearer broadcast than over the phone. (Local and international radio stations may be willing to do phone interviews and Skype is being used increasingly frequently.) The Office of External Affairs and Communications has a dedicated ISDN line which you may use for non-BBC interviews or if you are unable to go to the BBC Cambridgeshire studios.

You may also receive calls requesting a TV interview. Sometimes they will invite you to a studio where you will meet the presenter; other times, you will be ‘down the line’ and it will be just you in front a camera in a small studio, being broadcast into a London studio. TV stations will often want to film you in your office or your lab – this will usually be a day or two before your research is published. Filming can be time-consuming: it can take a couple of hours to film a piece less than a couple of minutes long. The pay-off is usually worth it, though – TV news reaches a large audience. We can help coordinate filming, arrange access and parking, etc.

Even if you do not get contacted by any journalists immediately, this does not mean that the story will be ignored. If a journalist is busy, they may write the story using only the information in the press release, without speaking to you directly. Sometimes they will keep the story and use it a later date, often in a broader feature.

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Be an expert

We often receive requests for experts to comment on stories in the news – anything from the situation in the Middle East to the possible effect on the brain of steroid use. If you are prepared to act as an expert, please let us know which topics you are willing to speak about.

Bear in mind that ‘an expert’ means different things to the public than to your peers. Even if you don’t consider yourself an expert in this particular area, your knowledge is likely to be much higher than that of the majority of people.

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Tips for speaking to the media

No interview will be the same, and print, radio and TV interviews all differ significantly. However, there are a few tips to consider when doing any interview.

Preparing for your interview

  • Imagine how you would explain this research to a friend in the pub.
  • Write down three key points that you wish to get across.
  • Think about what questions you might get asked and how you would respond. What is the one question you wouldn’t want to be asked – and how would you answer it?
  • Try to use analogies to illustrate complex points – but be careful not to stretch the analogy too far.
  • Be clear when using statistics: say ‘one in three’ or ‘half’ rather than ‘30 per cent’ or ‘50 per cent’.
  • Be particularly careful of statistics when you are discussing risk (see Communicating Risk in a Soundbite for tips).
  • Ask us to run through a ‘mock interview’ with you if you think it will be helpful.

Speaking to print journalists

  • If a journalist calls you and you would like to gather your thoughts, ask if you can call them back in ten minutes.
  • Journalists often work to very tight deadlines. If they ask you to return their call, please do so as soon as possible – tomorrow is usually too late.
  • Don’t expect the journalist to show you a copy of the article before it is published.
  • Be careful of questions that start: “So what you are saying is X, Y, Z”. Answer in your own words.
  • Don’t let the interviewer draw you into an area you don’t feel comfortable talking about.
  • Beware of throwaway comments: assume that everything you say will be quoted, even if the journalist has closed their notebook.
  • Do not speak ‘off the record’ unless you know you can trust the journalist not to repeat or report your comments.
  • Ask the journalist to mention who the research was funded by – this will keep your funder happy! (But don’t be surprised if they don’t mention the funder.)

Doing broadcast interviews

What to ask before you agree to be interviewed (we will check these for you):

  • What is the programme and what is its audience?
  • What is the interview about and what areas will be covered?
  • Is anyone else being interviewed, and if so who? Will you be discussing the issue with them? (Never agree to do a ‘head-to-head' discussion without knowing who the other interview will be.)
  • How long will the interview last?
  • Is it live or pre-recorded?
  • Where will the interview take place? Can they arrange transport?

When being interviewed

  • Be positive, calm, courteous and enthusiastic.
  • Even if the interviewer or fellow interviewee is challenging you or being aggressive, remain calm – you will come across better to your audience.
  • Remember your audience – you are talking to the public, not your peers. Use colloquial language and avoid jargon, acronyms or long titles.
  • Don’t use the interviewer’s name as it can sound overly familiar.
  • Try not to avoid answering questions as it can sound like you have something to hide. If you want to move the discussion away, give a short answer and then bring it back to your key messages with a ‘bridge’ – for example “and that’s why…”
  • Where possible, give full answers and give the interviewer something to help them with the next question.
  • Don’t fall for the interviewer’s pregnant pause encouraging you to carry on.
  • Avoid ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’.
  • Drink water beforehand – a dry throat can make your voice sound ‘scratchy’.
  • Remember you are effectively talking to one person not to a vast audience.

TV interviews

  • Look at the interviewer – pay no attention to the camera. (Glancing at the camera can make you appear shifty.)
  • Sit firmly upright in your chair. Don’t move or rock your chair. If you are standing, stand with one foot in front of the other – this will help prevent you swaying.
  • Don’t wear anything distracting, e.g. fancy earrings or small stripes and checks (which cause problems for television).
  • Don’t move or relax at the end of the interview until you’ve been told to – the camera may still be on you.
  • If you’re wearing a radio/lapel mic, be careful what you say before it is removed (remember Gordon Brown’s ‘bigotgate’ episode).

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Animal research– should you speak out?

The University of Cambridge has signed up to the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, which means that if your research involved the use of animals, we will include mention of this in the press release. We will not issue a press release where mention of animals has been deliberately omitted.

You need not be concerned. The use of animals in research is rarely a story these days. The majority of the public support animal research and science and health stories routinely talk about the use of zebra fish, mice and even non-human primates. Scientists who talk about their animal research rarely receive negative coverage or face a ‘backlash’ about their work.

If you have any concerns, contact our Communications team or take a look at the following resources:

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Managing controversy

If your research has the potential for controversy, then it is essential that you notify us in advance. Even if you do not wish to actively promote your research, it is still possible that journalists will pick up on it and wish to report it. It’s better to be prepared!

We can advise on the best course of action. This may be:

  • preparing a reactive statement or press release in case the research is picked up
  • preparing a background, internal Q&A based on the research, which will include various questions that you might anticipate being asked by a journalist
  • conducting mock interviews to practise how you will answer difficult questions

Generally, we would recommend engaging with the media rather than stonewalling them. If you don’t speak to the media, someone else may well do – it is better to get your message across yourself.

The Science Media Centre also offers advice and support on dealing with controversial issues and regularly holds press briefings on issues such as genetic modification and climate change.

This guide is based on the Wellcome Trust Guide to Working with the Media.

 

Contact us

  communications@admin.cam.ac.uk

Tel: 01223 332300
Out of hours: 07879 116949