At the National Astronomy Meeting in 2004 I listened to Dr David Whitehouse, who I think was then Science Editor at the BBC, give advice about feeding science stories to the media. He made quite a few points, but there are three I remember.
- Don’t push a story on the grounds it’s the biggest / oldest / shiniest / crumbliest etc. thing found. It’s a cliché and it’s dull.
- Don’t waste people’s time with the formula for ‘x’ where x is anything which really shouldn’t have a formula.
- Don’t use press releases.
At the time he really didn’t convince me. The biggest, oldest and so on remains a staple news item. Likewise Cliff Arnall has shown you can make money from nonsense formulae. What really undermined him though was the newsroom run by the RAS at the meeting. I could wander in there and see the press releases. The next day I could see the same stories, often with little editing, in the national press. If he were to give the same talk today he might find it even harder. I can go to Eurekalert and pick up a sentence from any press release. If I paste it into Google I will find masses of news websites repeating the press release near verbatim.
Surely this proves publicity is about getting your press release into the right press release mill? I might have a news story by the end of the year and so I’ve thought about what I want to achieve with publicity. I’m job hunting. Press coverage could be really helpful to introduce me and my work to departments. That’s why I’m more interested in quality rather than quantity and that’s why I think David Whitehouse could be right.
The reason I was sceptical is because of an adversarial model of researcher-journalist relations. Basically this is down to two complaints.
- Journalists regurgitate press releases without any critical thought.
- Journalists don’t regurgitate my press releases without any critical thought.
Clearly that proves that any problems in science journalism are the fault of journalists rather than my work being unnewsworthy. You can’t argue with logic like that unless you’re very drunk.
If you see journalists as a barrier between you and the public then bypassing them makes sense. The target becomes getting the press release as unmangled as possible into the public’s hands. This kind of thinking is the basis behind Futurity. The journalists are a resource valued as far as they can reproduce the release you’ve given them. Presumably there’s a corollary to this relationship from the journalists’ side where scientists are valued as far as fitting a marketing niche.
David Whitehouse argued that what journalists really want is an exclusive. Sticking a press release out means that it’s low priority because everyone will be able to cover the story. It wasn’t the best sales pitch because what I heard at the time was “If you put out a press release then lots of people will cover it, but an exclusive means only one person covers it.” If you’re in the adversarial model then the choice between press release and talking to just one journalist, who may decide not to run your story, is a no-brainer.
Now I’ve changed my mind.
My work is interdisciplinary. Journals, generally, aren’t. That means if I publish my work in one journal then it’ll be missed by a lot of the potential audience because researchers tend to read journals in their own discipline and only a few outside it. What I need is to publicise the work so that researchers outside the field of whatever journal I publish in will be aware of the paper. So if I publish in The Journal of Obscure Astronomy then I’ll have to find some way to alert classicists and archaeologists to the paper, else they’ll never read it — even if JOA is open access or the paper’s on arXiv.
Having a press release appear on a thousand websites is great for the ego, but it’s pointless if they’re a thousand websites that no-one with an interest in classics or archaeology reads. If I wanted to announce work to a small number of intelligent people I’d post it here. What I need is quality of coverage rather than quantity. In fact as I wrote that last sentence it struck me how irrelevant quantity of coverage is.
It sounds good. It’s something people can measure in column inches but realistically 10 column inches in two papers is not twice as good as 5 inches in one paper. Sharing links is easy. If the story appeared in just one major site, the link would be passed around. Appearing in more papers aids discovery, but the stories will all be saying similar things about the work. I was told that the recent publications on the Antikythera Mechanism appeared as news stories in all the quality papers in the world. But I bet if I were to sit down and read them all I’d find very little new information after the first three stories. Certainly appearing in more quality press is a better result, but the size of the readership for the major news sites is such that appearing in just one major site will still deliver more reach than a hundred minor sites.
It also looks like a practical way to aid good journalism. I’m willing to bet that any science journalist with even a bit of talent would like to see the end of press releases being called news. If we reinforce the idea that a recycled press release is news then there’s no call for specialist science journalists because anyone can recycle a press release.
That’s why I’ve decided the next time I have a story — if the journal doesn’t have its own media policy — I’m going to try pitching it direct to a journalist rather than via a press release. I’m not comfortable with this. Every day you can see press releases working in the papers and if websites recycle material big numbers are attractive. But maybe that’s a safety net? If news sites really are putting up press releases as news then even if attempts to pitch the exclusive fail you can always fall back on a press release. That’s another reason press releases shouldn’t be the first option.