Talk to a reporter - you may learn how to get your message across

Don't run from the media: engaging with journalists can help you hone your thoughts and words - at least once the panic subsides, says Chris Hackley

April 2, 2009

Famous figures from Thomas Carlyle to Margaret Thatcher have noted the awesome power of the press. Baroness Thatcher urged the media not to supply terrorists with the "oxygen of publicity".

Today, universities are tapping into the gaseous world of public relations in the interests of managing the university brand. As a result, academics are expected to add media skills to our bulging portfolios. We are offered training courses to turn us from pedants into pundits, and the university's PR office scours the media for mentions and touts our expertise to journalists.

Sceptical colleagues wonder whether media twitterings really are relevant to the university mission. Isn't it just a case of some people reading too much Max Clifford and not enough Max Weber? But the Zeitgeist dictates that press coverage of research ticks the boxes labelled "user" and "engagement", and perhaps "impact" and "accountability" as well. Even sober scholars with an eye on citation counts are leveraging their media presence by uploading publications to the web. It's not the thing any more, as Guy Debord said, it's the spectacle.

Academics ought to have a bigger media presence because of the contribution we can make to practical matters and public policy. In the US, every new presidential administration takes on a pod of seconded professors. Here, few academics can boast a call from a Whitehall mandarin. There is huge press interest in research, but it's often superficial.

The solution may lie in our own hands. What is more, there are mutual benefits to academic engagement in the media. But if you do feel the urge to get your vox to the pop, there isn't a how-to manual. University press officers are happy to help you write up a press release, but what happens after that is mostly down to luck. If your research does arouse the curiosity of the fourth estate, the process can be trying.

Many of us are wary of publicity for fear that our research will be misreported. The sniff of a hot scoop may excite newshounds to hyperbole on occasion, but there's usually an opportunity to clarify the point. One study I was involved with reached page 2 of The Sun because a semiotically inspired sub-editor had given it a striking, albeit unexpected, headline. We were able to balance the coverage with more detail elsewhere.

Time-consuming preparation can come to nothing because journalists' ideas for stories may be cut by editors. And there is no sentiment. I once found out that I had been dropped from a TV news show just an hour before broadcast when I called to ask why the promised car to the studio hadn't arrived. They weren't going to tell me, even after days of dialogue. On another occasion, a production company filmed an interview with me on campus after three months of meetings and email conversations. They didn't use any of the footage.

Media appearances can also bring on classic stage fright. A live interview can induce sheer palpitating panic. Don't spend too much time on YouTube looking at Richard Nixon's classically ill-judged performances - that could be you. If that's not intimidating enough, remember that broadcast journalists have an unerring instinct for asking a question that is so simple that it never occurred to you to prepare an answer. During one TV interview, I felt as if I were having a small heart attack as time stopped and my brain atrophied in response to the presenter's child-like directness. Eventually I spoke, saying nothing. A triumph of vacuity. Debord? De viewers must have been as I blathered earnestly into the ether.

Trying to communicate with non-academic audiences via the media calls for new craft skills of communication and sharpens your thinking. Let's face it - typical academic prose is more Henry James than Hemingway, in length at least. Journalism demands brevity. As academics, we are professional communicators with the time to be turgid. If a 6,000-word limit for a journal article is impossibly confining, a 600-word limit for a trade press piece is a Rubik's cube of a puzzle. Broadcasting is especially salutary. In a recent radio interview, I marvelled as the ex-BBC journalist I was arguing with spoke in cadenced sentences that had a beginning, a middle and an end. Mine started in the middle and stayed there. We use the term "journalistic" to damn under-referenced student essays. Truth is, the average hack can get to the point with an economy, lucidity and sheer readability that we should admire. Media engagement can be instructive, and we should do more.

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