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Researchers and Media Relations (on a Shoestring)

I was invited to be part of a panel on working with the media at the 2015 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Meeting, speaking from the perspective of someone at a small museum that has had discoveries in the international spotlight. As part of that process, I put together a media tipsheet, but it seemed like a bit of a waste to let it languish outside of the conference. So, I lightly edited it into this post! If you have anything to add (or different experiences to share), please do so in the comments. Although the overall approach is written for paleontologists, my hope is that it is more broadly applicable.


Many guides for paleontologists on working with the news media or social media assume a press office juggernaut running in the background. Although this is comparatively true for those at universities or large museums, it is a different story for many (if not most) of us who call ourselves paleontologists. We may have to do much of the work that a dedicated media officer might otherwise do. Based on my own experience as the curator at a small museum, I have put together this tipsheet with recommendations for coordinating press coverage. Many of these items, of course, are true regardless of institution size! Your own personal situation may vary, so feel free to pick and choose what works for you.

Press Release

  • If there are any individuals at your organization who are involved with public relations or press releases (at very small organizations, it may not be part of their official title, so ask around), make sure to get them involved. You will need any help you can get!
  • EurekAlert (www.eurekalert.org) is the single best way (in my experience) to get your press release in front of an international media audience. There is a small fee and it requires approval of the press release, but is well worth the investment. You will need to take the time to go through the proper channels at EurekAlert, and work with contacts (if any) within your organization who can do the legwork, but the service is well worth the time and money.
  • There are also free press release publication services out there, but with a more variable hit rate for uptake. Do some homework before investing much time in them, to see if they are worth pursuing.
  • For local news services, you will need to do some research on where to submit the story for consideration. This gets easier as you build relationships with reporters. If you have a working relationship with any particular local reporters, make sure to keep them in the loop on your upcoming reearch!
  • When designing a press release, think about the various angles of the story. What is your main scientific message? Is there a human interest angle? You may need two different press releases if you are targeting both local media and national/international media.
  • Check out a press release on EurekAlert, to get an idea of format, length, and content. Generally, the best releases are succinct and informative–a page or so in length.
  • It may be helpful to put together a short FAQ to go with your press release. Include things such as the pronunciation of scientific names, or background information on the fossil.
  • If there is an embargo period, make sure that you abide by it and that any journalists you interact with agree to abide by it.
  • Think carefully about timing. Check with the journal to find out when the paper will be released. If you have some say in timing of an announcement, think carefully about when is best. Major holidays should be avoided, as should weekends. Mondays and Fridays also aren’t great, because they don’t leave a lot of time for journalists to work on the story, or else they can get buried in the weekend news. The press release should go out about a week ahead of the story, to allow sufficient (but not too much) time for reporters to follow up.
  • If you know any journalists, it is okay to shoot them a quick email with the press release. Large scale spamming or nagging on why they haven’t contacted you about the story should be avoided, though.

Social Media

  • If you have institutional or personal social media accounts, have a plan for how to roll out the story. What will you tweet and post on Facebook or Instagram?
  • If you have the skills, consider putting together a short Youtube video.
  • For some discoveries, it may be worth putting together a custom website. These can be done easily and fairly cheaply on the WordPress platform. At a minimum, consider having a special page on your personal and/or institutional website so that interested members of the public can learn more.
Aquilops in life, by Brian Engh. CC-BY.
Artist Brian Engh created this compelling image of the early horned dinosaur Aquilops, which was featured in numerous news stories when the paper was published. CC-BY.

Imagery

  • Well before the official announcement, think about what imagery will be of interest. Create a press kit that has field photos, specimen photos, life restorations, etc. Also, have captions with credit information prepared. I like to create an imagery thumbnail document, with links to a Google Drive folder that hosts the images. This way you can send a preview of the images to the press, and they can download whatever they need. The easier you make it for journalists to use your imagery, the more likely they are to use it (and the easier it is on you, if the story turns into something really big!).
  • If you have the budget, it is well worth commissioning artwork to depict your organism as it was when it was alive. Although it is tempting to want artists to work for free (“Think of the exposure if your work is in the international media! And our museum is poor!”), I would strongly discourage this practice, because the promised exposure only rarely generates any direct payment for the artists. Many artists are willing to work with you to create an effective image within your budget and their standard fees.
  • You probably have a very nice scientific illustration of the fossils in your paper, but it is almost certainly not great for the media. Some sort of human scale–for instance, a fossil being held in a human hand, or the discoverer next to the fossil–are often much more visually appealing than the fossil with a scale bar.
  • Make sure that you have permission to release all imagery that might be going to the press. This includes museums housing specimens, land agencies or land owners, people depicted in photographs, etc. If you are working with an artist, make sure they are clear on how the imagery might be used and how it should be credited.

Other Stuff

  • No matter what, make sure that the relevant individuals at your institution are in the loop on any publicity plans. Even small organizations may have a media engagement policy you have to follow (particularly if it is a museum under the umbrella of a government organization), and at a minimum you don’t want to create a situation where someone in charge learns about the press release via someone else. On the more positive side, there may be people at your organization who have skills you can tap into. You’ll never know if you try and do it all solo!
  • If your fossils are from federal, state, or other lands, make sure to credit the appropriate agencies in any press releases (check your permit terms and conditions to see if they have particular guidelines). Also, it is a really good idea to give the relevant officials a heads-up prior to the press release, so that they can promote it internally as well, and so that you can get any necessary feedback.
  • If your fossils are from another institution, it is a great idea to let them know about the press release. They may want to coordinate something in the news media also. At a minimum, you’ll want to confirm that they are happy with how they are credited in any publicity.
  • Have a list of experts who might be handy to refer reporters to. I particularly encourage you to put together a diverse list of people, from a variety of backgrounds, locations, and institutions.
  • Think carefully about what and how you press release items. Some items might be of local interest, some of international interest. Be aware that oversaturation of your research in the media (e.g., a series of releases highlighting only the most minor scientific advances) may negatively impact your professional reputation as well as credibility with journalists.
  • If you are on a multi-institutional team, think carefully about how you will present your research to the media. It is not good practice to have multiple international press releases from different institutions on the same research. Generally, the senior author’s institution will take the lead on national/international coverage (unless agreed otherwise), and junior authors may stick with local coverage. This should be decided well in advance of any press releases.
  • If you haven’t already, give strong consideration to your work appearing in an open access journal, or having some easy mechanism to get your work to colleagues who will not have easy access. If your work receives publicity, people will want to read it. It is frustrating to run into a paywall when trying to investigate the paper behind a news story!

Of course, the above is all based on my own experience and my own situation. Perhaps you have had success with different approaches, or found something that I mention to not be that effective for you. What might you add? Have you had different experiences that you would like to share? Chime in via the comments!

Discussion

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