Media skills

Obtaining press coverage for your research and gaining a name as a media commentator requires preparation

February 20, 2008

Don't get too wound up about the idea of potential media coverage on your work, 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. It puts a lot of pressure on a journalist to tell them something 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 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 taking care 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.

Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the department of media and communications at the London School of Economics, warns not to give an interview on live TV without some training. Moreover, make sure you know what programme format and genre is involved.

Griffiths says that he prefers live television and radio to pre-recorded shows, because it is possible to turn an interview around to express the points 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.

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 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 quickly, they are likely to use you again,” he says. And if he is asked something he cannot immediately answer, he will check the deadline for the piece and ring back well within it.

Third, you need to get to know your press officers. 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, says Griffiths.

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 notes.

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.”

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, as 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.


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