Spark a spliffing debate

March 24, 2006

Want to make a mark with a wide audience? Can your smoking-hot research be linked to something controversial such as drug reclassification or sex? Grab that newsworthy element by the horns and sell it to the media, says Olga Wojtas

When it comes to dealing with the media at a conference, university press officers are your friends. They can help with press releases, offer media training and organise briefings for journalists. But there are several rules for ensuring that the friendship remains intact.

First, give press officers advance warning of at least a month rather than telling them on the day or, even worse, afterwards - when it is too late to get media interest. And second, ensure that any potential interviewees can be contacted. Many a good research story has not been told because the speaker was in transit and incommunicado. Journalists will rarely turn up at conferences, and if they do their time will be limited.

Press officers may not be able to patrol a conference but media-savvy junior lecturers or research students with mobiles can be primed to field calls and bring speakers and reporters together. Academics are often wary of the media but press officers insist that the merits of communication outweigh the risks, with a higher profile benefiting researchers, institutions and the discipline.

Jonathan Breckon, head of public affairs at the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers, says a story that takes off in the media reaches a massive audience and can influence the Government and non-governmental organisations. "Two years ago, geographers at Brighton University presented research on how students (affected) the local economy, and now there's been an official Universities UK study."

He takes a reassuringly laid-back view of media distortion. It can, he says, generate useful debate. In any event, people do read beneath the headlines, and anyone with a real interest can seek out the original research. Douglas Brown, public relations manager at the British Psychological Society, says academics are not communicating with their peers and must tailor their approach accordingly. "Think about it in more user-friendly terms, how it relates to people's lives. Be clear and concise and focused about what you want to communicate."

What is newsworthy, says Brown, is human interest; anything linked to national concerns or debates, such as religious intolerance or drug reclassification; controversy; and whether the research is novel, for example, the first, biggest or best. But academics should never be coy about topics that may be well known in their field but not known by the general community. He says: "Stories will run about psychology research that aren't desperately ground-breaking in terms of science but tell the lay person something more about themselves, or are a scientific confirmation of something they intuitively know. That in itself is very interesting and valid."

By the same token, says Ken Simpson, a Scottish studies expert at Strathclyde University who has been organising conferences for 16 years, pioneering research that is academically exciting may hold no interest for the media. "You've got to allow for the fact that the popular press is going to sensationalise things. But that's a price you willingly pay to get the existence of an event to as wide a public as possible."


Media sorry: 'I'll keep my mouth shut'

Susan Condor, a psychologist at Lancaster University, mistakenly thought that she was in control of media coverage when she spoke to the press at a British Psychological Society conference in Edinburgh last summer. "I'd been quite careful, talking only to broadsheet journalists about things I thought were fairly uncontroversial and utterly neutral," she says.

Since 2000, she has been tracking Scots living in England to see whether constitutional change has affected them and their career plans.

She mentioned that many respondents felt they were losing touch with Scotland because of the pace of post-devolution change and lack of coverage of Scottish developments in the English media. Most of the coverage was "very fair" but she was horrified to see one story headlined: "Scottish Parliament 'deters expats from returning north'".

"This was a gross misrepresentation of what I'd said and not the conclusion I'd have chosen," she says. "It's important for me to maintain political neutrality." The article risked damaging her reputation and her relationship with respon-dents, she says. But she decided against contacting the newspaper, fearing this would "add fuel to the flames".

Since then, her strategy for dealing with the media has been "not to speak to anyone and to keep my mouth well and truly shut".


Media savvy: 'We were bigger than Abba'

A year ago, Mike Press and Rachel Cooper, two design professors, were stunned to find themselves the media darlings of a conference in Sweden.

"For 48 hours, we were bigger than Abba," Press says. Press, from Robert Gordon University, and Cooper, from Salford University, were speaking on using design to reduce opportunities for crime, such as putting wrist-straps on mobile phones to prevent them being snatched.

The media made a beeline for them, ignoring other speakers such as Tom Dixon, design guru at Habitat.

"The first few interviews we did, I was talking about various theories of environmental criminology and realised people were just blanking out," he says. "When you publish, you back stuff up and document it, but the media have a completely different interest. You have to give them the headline for the story and reduce your work to the bare essentials, not include academic citations." It is crucial to make your points in a lively, accessible way, he says.

"Journalists want something that's newsworthy. If you're not giving them what they want, they look for areas of conflict or taxpayers' money not being used as wisely as it should."

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