Are you ready for your close-up?

May 19, 2006

If you fancy seeing your research featured in the press and want to give broadcasters your expert view of events, you must prepare. Harriet Swain finds out what you need to become a headline act

Maybe you want to create headlines. Maybe your institution wants you to create headlines. Maybe a journalist you know wants you to create headlines. Whatever the reason, you need to learn how to handle the media.

Don't get too wound up about the idea, says Nic Mitchell, an executive member of the Higher Education External Relations Association. On the other hand, you need to be aware when talking to journalists that whatever you say could end up in print, he states. If you want to speak off the record or if you need to clear what you say with someone first, it is best not to talk at all. He says it puts a lot of pressure on a journalist to tell them something top secret and then ask them not to publish it.

Mark Griffiths, professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University, is regularly interviewed in the media. He says that, in his experience, journalists have always respected his requests to keep something off the record "but you have to make sure you request it".

Mitchell advises breaking down what you want to say into three or four points when talking to journalists. This does not mean talking in soundbites, he says, but trying to be "newsy" and interesting.

To achieve all this, it is a good idea to have media training, which your university press office should be able to provide. Most useful, says Mitchell, is watching videos of yourself being interviewed, although he warns against practising too much - you want interviews to sound fresh, not well rehearsed.

Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the department of media and communications at the London School of Economics, says you should not attempt to give an interview on live TV without some training. And you need to make sure you know what you are letting yourself in for in terms of programme format and genre. Always try to see the programme before you agree to appear on it, and be aware that some journalists may not be respectful towards academics, she warns.

Griffiths says that now he has some experience of dealing with the media, he prefers live television and radio to pre-recorded shows because he has more control over content. He says that while journalists will have their own angle, it is possible to turn an interview around to express the points that you want to emphasise. One way is to deal briefly with the question and then say "but the real issue is...". Pre-recorded programmes, in contrast, may be heavily edited and also take up much more time.

If you do come across as fresh and enthusiastic, your media career could take off, but there are a few tricks that will help it along, Griffiths says. First, he says, if you really want your name to appear in print, do research in populist areas.

Second, always ring back journalists who contact you. "If you ring back - and do it quickly - they are likely to use you again," he says. If Griffiths is on holiday when a journalist calls, he will ring to apologise on his return. And if he is asked something he cannot immediately answer, he will ask about the deadline for the piece and ring back well within it.

Third, you need to get to know your press officers and establish good relations with them. Make sure your name and contact details are on the university's list of experts and on any similar lists held by your professional association. Cultivating contacts with individual journalists and press office managers is important, Griffiths says.

And fourth, write regular letters to the national broadsheet newspapers. If you see something related to your subject, it is worth sending off a few lines because of the response it generates. "From getting one letter in the national press, I will get four calls from journalists looking for an angle on a study," Griffiths says.

He emphasises the value of presenting your findings at press conferences.

"Journalists aren't going to spend time reading your report or paper," he says. "Press conferences are the main forum for getting over your arguments."

Mandy Garner, features editor of The Times Higher , says you need to be sensitive to journalists' timetables. This means avoiding cold calling on press day. A better approach is to e-mail with an idea and then make a follow-up call if necessary. You should try to tie in your ideas to something in the news or a forthcoming conference and give editors plenty of notice - Garner suggests at least a month for The Times Higher features, unless your piece is linked to breaking news.

She says that when you write the article you need to check the style of the publication you are writing for and pitch the piece with the relevant audience in mind. The opening paragraph should catch readers' attention.

"Academics sometimes get very upset about a headline because they think it is flippant or controversial," she says. "They don't understand that it is meant to draw the reader into the article. It is not a summing-up."

Mitchell says that it is important to "think visual" when dealing with all media but in particular with television. He also advises bringing the subject to life by thinking of concrete examples. And if your conclusion is interesting, don't hide it in academic speak.

Livingstone says that you need to be "clear and rigorous" about what you can and cannot talk about. If you are not able to respond, offer the names of three other people whom the journalist could contact instead.

Griffiths says that if you do have a bad experience in dealing with the media, don't let it put you off - it can turn out to be positive in the end. He has received grants, consultancies and ideas for further research simply by responding to journalists' calls.

Further information Higher Education External Relations Association:


Cultivate your press office

Don't say anything that you don't want to be published

Think in pictures and offer concrete examples

Avoid jargon

Be sensitive to your audience

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