Let’s start by considering why it is so important to engage with the media. The key to remember is that radio, television, newspapers, and other mass media reach an extremely large number of people. The media are a powerful way to get your message to business, political, and interest groups, and other important audiences. Decision-makers in government usually receive a media review first thing each morning – reading it is often the first order of business. Think impact as well. Reputations can be made or lost in the media. Themes, discoveries or problems only become “real” after they have appeared in newspapers or on television. The media can also be used to strengthen links with other organizations and networks and to generate a wider public debate.
That last point leads to another reason for using the media – to promote dialogue. People need to be properly informed in a democratic society. Highlighting your project in the media can help open a two-way debate. Using the media is also a way to market or raise the profile of a research program, an organization, or an individual researcher. It is inexpensive public relations. Then there is the accountability issue, which is especially relevant for IDRC. Much scientific research is paid for by taxpayers, who have the right to know that their money is being used to good effect. Communicating research results can also be considered part of the ethical and professional responsibility of scientists.
Always remember: the media are the means, not the end. You are not communicating to the media, you are using them to reach a variety of audiences. And if done well, this communication can help influence policy and practices. While this session is aimed at attracting media attention, the media are only one part of strategic communications. IDRC also has a toolkit that deals with the larger challenge of building a good communications strategy.
Frequently, science and the media engage in a “clash of cultures” characterized by mutual distrust, even hostility. Some scientists believe that reporters only look for controversy and emotion, or that they distort and sensationalize the facts. Researchers often feel that the media are shallow and superficial. They believe that reporters don’t understand the rigours of science, and consequently “dumb it down.” And they also think there is too much of the “gotcha” approach – the idea that reporters are out to damage the reputation of a politician or other public figure, or to destroy the validity or relevance of an issue.
Now the flip side: some reporters feel that scientists are not clear or are bad communicators who hide behind jargon. The media does not believe that the work scientists do is of much interest to readers or viewers. Reporters also feel that researchers don’t really understand the media all that well and don’t appreciate the news cycle’s need for timely, interesting, and entertaining stories.
Scientists and researchers often work on three-year projects. Journalists may produce three stories a day. Most reporters work on tight daily deadlines while scientists work at the rate imposed by the research. Scientists try to see things in a neutral way, their conclusions supported by the evidence. The media however thrive on emotion and colour. Scientists tread carefully. They are prudent and look for consensus. Reporters prefer conflict and controversy. They want stories that can be portrayed as sensational – after all, they want to sell newspapers or get good ratings. Research often produces doubts and raises questions, but does not always provide clear answers. Journalists however expect science to deliver definitive answers. Finally, scientists see their work as being collaborative and cooperative, while the media like to concentrate on individuals, for example, a single well-spoken member of the research team, or someone who has been affected by the research, or even another scientist outside the team in order to provide “checks and balances.”
Journalists work against deadlines that are sometimes measured in hours, even minutes. In the developed world, newspapers used to have a single daily deadline, but now the “age of instant information” pushes reporters to immediately post their stories on the Web. TV reporters are expected to feed all-news channels on a constant basis as well as to put together a story for the major newscast. The same sort of pressures are being felt by media in the developing world. Because of that, journalists are often busy, stressed, overworked and in many cases, underpaid. Reporters are also under pressure to come up with new and interesting stories. They need those stories every bit as much as you want or even need publicity. And finally remember that the reporter does not have the final say on whether the item is run in a newspaper or on air. The reporter must convince his or her editor that the story merits space in the newspaper or broadcast.
As a general rule, before an interview reporters are reluctant to give you the specific questions. They don’t want “canned” or memorized answers but prefer a degree of spontaneity. However, you should insist beforehand on knowing at least the general topic and direction of any interview. The news media is not in the business of endorsing organizations or causes. They will tackle newsworthy items that you may suggest but they don’t want to “promote” IDRC. Instead, in the name of balance, the media looks for conflicting opinions or someone who might criticize or disagree with your research findings. Even if you have paid for journalists to attend a conference, usually you cannot insist that they cover a panel or certain research. This can depend on the country, but the general rule is that you can strongly suggest and “pitch” what reporters should cover, but in the end the reporter will decide what he or she will do.
So far we have talked mainly about daily news reporters. However, there are other types as well. You need to figure out which journalists are the ones that are read or listened to by the key audiences you want to reach. Science journalists know more about the topic, have more time, and understand the values and the vocabulary of science. They are usually more interested in in-depth scientific discoveries. However, they are not always the best choice if you want to reach a wide audience. Plus, very few newspaper or broadcast outlets employ a dedicated science reporter. If you want to get your story in a newspaper or on the TV news, you will probably have to deal with a general assignment reporter. These journalists work in a hurry, cover a variety of topics, and have little time for research. If you are lucky, the gold standard is to attract the attention of “star” journalists or “star” publications such as the Economist or Nature magazine. You need to assess which individuals or journals are influential and respected, especially by the decision-makers that you are trying to reach.
Let’s briefly look at the characteristics of the range of media. Newspapers are a good way to reach a broad audience, but often a paper is merely scanned. Newspapers employ few specialized reporters. On the other hand, politicians and other decision-makers often receive clippings or a review of everything that was in the print media that day. Radio is an excellent medium to use in the developing world because it is not expensive and is widely accessible. Radio journalists often conduct interviews or conversations with individuals. In the developed world, it has its largest audience in the morning. Television is watched mainly in the evenings. TV emphasizes entertainment, but don’t let that stop you from trying to get coverage. TV needs visuals, and images make much more of an impression than words. TV thrives on action, movement, and noise. It is not a good medium for describing complex concepts. Magazines have a longer shelf life, and articles are given more time, attention, and depth. New media are increasingly important. The Web is all about information, and the cost of distribution is zero. And while a newspaper can be used to wrap fish, a document on the Internet has staying power. Finally, development workers love making videos but many videos remain on the shelf, unwatched. With videos you usually spend more time and money for a smaller audience.
Remember as well that there are different kinds of stories in the media. So far, we have been referring mainly to daily news that you find in newspapers or in radio or TV newscasts. If a reporter interviews someone at IDRC, that voice will be only one among many voices debating the issues of the day. However, newspapers also publish longer feature stories that usually carry a human interest angle. You may be able to convince the print or broadcast media to profile an area of study, an individual project, or an interesting researcher. Newspapers will also publish an opinion or viewpoint piece (known as an op-ed because it appears opposite the editorial). Usually someone in the organization drafts the article, taking into account the ideal word count and other guidelines of the publication. The piece is signed by a senior official, and you then try to convince the newspaper to run it. Or, you can give an interview. They are sometimes just used for quotes or clips in a news story. Or they can run on their own for 5 to 15 minutes in a broadcast. Finally, you can respond to something in the news with a short letter to the editor.
Generally, the media likes to report the first ever, the oldest ever, the biggest or the smallest, the most unusual. While researchers tend to tone things down, journalists tend to magnify issues. A small earth tremor in Sicily might be ignored by locals, while a reporter could sell it as “thousands of people seek safety from an earthquake in Sicily.” You will notice the mention of “thousands of people.” Journalists always play up the human interest angle. If you are researching climate change adaptation, for example, reporters will want to know the impact on incomes and human health. Issues make news when they link an event and a piece of news. For example, a big conference on HIV/AIDS is taking place, or there is a World Bank or G8 meeting that is focusing on certain hot issues. Or climate change, stem cell research, or avian flu is in the news. Conflict does not just mean war. Conflict might also include villagers fighting development, or clashing views about how to eradicate malaria. It may also simply mean an unexpected breakthrough or a new way of thinking. Finally, reporters are drawn to events that involve celebrities – perhaps an actor who is fighting human rights abuses, or a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
To sell a story or give an interview, you will need to craft some key messages or “speaking points” ahead of time. Boil down what you want to say to three to five key messages. These messages should be crafted to show how your research touches people. Does it give them access to better education, improve their health care, or increase their income? Does it help their environment or their working lives? Each message should have only one thought. Avoid acronyms or jargon. Each message should be memorable and help create excitement. Again, this is not dumbing things down but it is aimed at being clear and focused. Use active verbs. “Save lives.” “Boost incomes.” “Empower women.” “Engage youth.” “Revitalize democracy.” Ideally you will boil things down to one “sticky message” – a message that sticks in people’s minds. For example, “treated bed nets save lives.” Or “the health project in Tanzania reduced child mortality by 40%.”
When doing a media interview, remember to relax. A good way to do this is to smile and breathe deeply. Make sure you know the key messages – keep them simple. Tell the interviewer why your story is “cool” and what impact it has on people. Keep the answers short and don’t use jargon or technical language. Don’t rush to fill silences. Encouraging you to do so can be a journalistic trick to get you off message. And don’t answer what you don’t know; instead you could say , “I don’t know the answer to that question, but what I can tell you is...” Another good idea is to practice beforehand with friends or family members who do not know your field. Look the interviewer in the eye. This conveys your confidence and credibility. Remember that you are in control of the interview and can focus on the messages that you want to get across. Never be aggressive, and don’t fidget. And don’t have a false sense of security. Assume everything you say could be quoted – even after the formal interview is over. Our toolkit includes another tool dealing exclusively with doing TV interviews.
First, make a list of the reporters you want to contact. You can do this by reading the publications that you want to target, by watching TV, and by listening to the radio and choosing reporters who write on science or development issues. You can also make a pitch directly to the assignment editor at a newspaper or broadcast outlet. Their names can sometimes be found on the Internet. A pitch means contacting reporters to present the merits of your proposed story. Use your “news hook” to draw the interest of their readers and editors. Remember what makes a good story. Don’t just say “we have a researcher coming to town who knows about climate change.” Spice it up, for example, “We have an African researcher coming to town who has experienced how climate change is devastating the incomes of poor village farmers.” If there is a big UN meeting on the environment happening that week, you could suggest that readers may be interested in some of the ways those villagers are adapting to the challenges of climate change thanks to the help of Canadians. The key to a good media pitch is to be clear and concise. And make sure you deliver the pitch a few days ahead of any event or proposed interview.
Try to structure your pitch to explain the project, the issues, the characters, and the stories. We will look at each in turn.
You should touch on the type of project you are pitching but don’t use its long scientific name or labels internal to IDRC. For example, you would not say “we have a project in Mongolia called PAN localization Phase Two” Instead you would talk about a project that is helping to translate computer terms into the Mongolian language, thus bringing the world to Mongolians in remote villages and allowing them to become better engaged citizens. So, whenever you make a pitch don’t use an acronym such as PCD or WRC – these terms mean absolutely nothing to the general public as represented by the media. Besides, we should be “pitching” a project or a partner supported by IDRC, not the specific program area.
Next, tell the reporter what is at stake. Here are some of the things that you should think of when framing the issue. Boil it down to its essential elements. For example, “we have been looking at how access to the Internet is changing lives in countries such as Mongolia” or “We are looking at how vulnerable farmers in Africa are adapting to droughts brought on by climate change.” Always use informal, accessible language. Remember that reporters are interested in conflict and the human dimension. And you should link to events that are now in the public arena, such as what is happening in Afghanistan, the food crisis, the recent economic crisis, climate change or avian flu.
It is also important to pinpoint the people the reporter should interview. As a general rule, the media are interested in the person who actually did the work in the laboratory or in the field, and also in the individuals who have felt an impact in their lives because of the research project. For example, one IDRC research associate with the project “Palestinian Adolescents Coping with Trauma” lived in the Middle East as an adolescent and once worked as a nurse on the front lines. That makes her a compelling interview subject. Reporters often want to talk to at least two different “voices” to build a story – you could offer up a research partner plus someone who has benefited from the research.
Finally, suggest a narrative or story line. In the case just mentioned the line could be: the IDRC researcher had experienced conflict as a young girl in the Middle East, and now she wants to help alleviate the trauma resulting from the daily exposure to conflict faced by adolescents in Palestine. If pitching to a TV outlet, remember to think of visuals. Newspapers also covet compelling photos to accompany any story. And again, remember the human touch.
Here is an example of an actual pitch made by IDRC during the AIDS conference in Toronto in 2006. The result was an article in the Toronto Star newspaper as well as several interviews.
Here are a few more tips to keep in mind when putting together a media pitch. Try to think like a member of the audience. What would interest me about this research or this researcher? Why should I care? What is important and interesting about this? Remember that reporters can be potential allies in getting your story out. Don’t hold your nose and consider them to be difficult, troublesome “conduits” whom you have to tolerate. When you make your pitch, ensure you have all the facts at hand should the reporter decide to cover the story. Always be prepared – for example, check that the people you have suggested for interviews are in fact willing to speak to the reporter and that they have the information they need to do so. Always stay focused and on message when talking to the media. You should try to help the reporter get the story as quickly and concisely as possible.
A news release is a short summary of news, or it can be part of a marketing strategy to publicize a coming event. Journalists are flooded with them so you need to work hard to generate enough buzz in your release to get the media to pay attention. At the top of the page insert your organization’s name and logo, and add the effective date of the news release. Often this will be: FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE. Then add a headline, usually in bold letters. It must be attention-grabbing. Use as few words as possible – you don’t even have to use proper grammar. The first paragraph must also grab the reader’s attention or the release will quickly end up in the garbage. Follow the inverted pyramid style and start with the conclusion or the most essential information. Answer what reporters call the 5 Ws: who? what? when? where? and why? The rest of the release should comprise a couple of short paragraphs with one point per paragraph. If possible, include a quote from someone involved in the story. It should sound like something that person would have said rather than something the person would have written. Include the essence of the results, and the implications. The best way to end a release is with a conclusion and a suggestion of what’s next. The entire release should fill only a single page, with your contact information at the bottom. You should also include the website URL.
Here is an example of a news release
Here are some other tips about writing a news release. Make sure you use simple language with short sentences. Have you emphasized what’s new about the research? Have you explained what is of interest to your target media? Have you touched on the impact it has on people? Again, you must use everyday language and avoid scientific jargon and acronyms. You should also write in the active voice. Send the release a couple of days ahead of time so that interested reporters have time to plan for the event or interview. You can send the release by fax or email, feature it on your website, or use news services that distribute the release to your target media, whether it be domestic or international.
Because the release is so short, it is a good idea to attach a one- or two-page backgrounder or even a biography of the person being featured. These texts should also be written in everyday language minus jargon and acronyms. You should also be aware that news releases are less effective than they used to be. Nowadays, busy journalists are bombarded with too much information. One estimate says that reporters in North America receive 50 to 70 news releases a day! Therefore you should consider other ways to get their attention. One example might be producing a post card with a compelling photo, or staging an event or field visit.
Hold a news conference only if you have something big or special to announce. If you decide to go that route, hold the event in the morning when more reporters are available – they are often busy writing their stories in the afternoon. Use a news release to advertise the conference and make follow-up calls. Ask whether the reporter got the release, will the reporter cover the event, and if so, whether the reporter needs more information. There is nothing worse then holding a news conference where nobody comes. Make sure the venue is accessible to the reporters you are targeting. You will need to arrange logistics – provide a podium or table, a sound system, and perhaps lighting for TV cameras. Make sure you choose the right person to address the journalists and make sure that the speaker is prepared. Ideally you should practice the talk beforehand. Have someone chair the conference. The speaker should make a short statement and then take questions from the reporters. It is good to have a handout to give reporters with background information and some basic facts and figures. Static news conferences are boring. Consider other events such as a field visit or a book launch with readings from the author, or invite reporters to a panel presentation.
Keep your list of key reporters up to date. In a similar way, try continually to establish and maintain professional relationships with them. Ideally, reporters will call you, and not somebody else, if they want information on a certain type of story. A good way to develop that kind of relationship is with a face-to-face meeting. It can be an informal encounter over coffee – but make sure you have something to say. Remember that you are competing with all the other press conferences, launches, and developing stories that bombard a journalist every day. It’s best to have some new information to offer when you are talking to the media. You should also make a point of trying to understand reporters. Keep track of their work, try to understand their interests. Always be aware of their tight deadlines. Remember to keep your communications jargon free, informal, and simple to understand. Some people argue that going to the media is risky. Reporters might put a negative spin on a story, or they might omit what you consider vital information. You can minimize such dangers by building a relationship based on trust and by providing materials in an accessible and timely manner.
Editors and publishers don’t like pre-packaged stories and media events. They are competitive by nature and prefer exclusive stories – something that appears only in one publication: theirs. Reporters will be grateful if you give them original, exclusive stories since these are the type that help further their careers. If you have offered the story to only one reporter, respect the exclusivity. However, if the story does not appear for a few days, call back and ask whether the story is going to run. If the reporter doesn’t know, wait about three days and then feel free to offer the material to other reporters. Also, once the piece has run, you can still make a pitch to other reporters – they may find a different angle to cover the same story. Or you may suggest a different story line or different people to interview in order to keep the story alive.
Always respond promptly to media requests. That means the same day, ideally the same hour. Even if you have nothing to offer, at least get back to the reporter and say so. Or tell the reporter you are trying to respond to the request but that it may take a few hours to arrange. Keep the reporter in the loop. Remember answering a media request is not doing the reporter a favour, but it is using the media to reach the public. When dealing with the media, always be prepared with relevant facts and figures. But don’t overwhelm the reporter – remember that journalists have tight time constraints, so keep it simple. In essence try to help the journalist help you by getting the reporter to quickly grasp the gist of the issue so that she or he can convince their editor to run the story. In the end you don’t control the content – the reporter does. However, you can best influence the story by dealing with the journalist in a professional and personable manner.
Ideally you should monitor the media on a daily basis. Look for opportunities. There may be events happening, such as a big conference, that may provide a hook for a media pitch. Maybe there is a story in the media about climate change or the food crisis – this could be a chance to write a letter to the editor explaining what your research project has shown in this area. Or it may be an opportunity to write an opinion piece. You and your team should ALWAYS be alert for opportunities to promote your research.
Remember too that evaluating our activities is an important part of IDRC’s work. You should keep a running tally of each time your research project is mentioned in the print or broadcast media. Media monitoring services can help with this. You can also use the power of the Internet, such as Google alerts, to measure “hits.” Try to evaluate not just the quantity but also the quality or effectiveness of the articles published. You may also want to survey key reporters and ask how you could better serve them.
Toolkit for researchers: how to deal with the media
How to Work With the Media
What’s In It For Me? <ul><li>Informing key audiences </li></ul><ul><li>Influencing key audiences </li></ul><ul><li>Strengthening links </li></ul>
What’s In It For Me? <ul><li>Promoting dialogue </li></ul><ul><li>Marketing </li></ul><ul><li>Accountability </li></ul>
What’s In It For Me? <ul><li>The media are the means, not the end </li></ul><ul><li>The media are only one part of a larger communication strategy </li></ul>
Science vs the Media <ul><li>Scientists think that the media </li></ul><ul><li>Distort and sensationalize </li></ul><ul><li>Act shallow and ignorant </li></ul><ul><li>Don’t understand science </li></ul><ul><li>Take a “gotcha” approach </li></ul>
Science vs the Media <ul><li>Reporters think that scientists </li></ul><ul><li>Are bad communicators </li></ul><ul><li>Hide behind jargon </li></ul><ul><li>Do boring work </li></ul><ul><li>Are out of touch </li></ul>
Science vs the Media <ul><li>Years vs hours </li></ul><ul><li>Neutrality vs emotion </li></ul><ul><li>Consensus vs controversy </li></ul><ul><li>Questions vs answers </li></ul><ul><li>Team vs stars </li></ul>
Understanding Media <ul><li>Are deadline driven </li></ul><ul><li>Are often stressed </li></ul><ul><li>Seek new and interesting stories </li></ul><ul><li>Thrive on conflict </li></ul><ul><li>Need to convince editors </li></ul>
Understanding Media <ul><li>Don’t like to give out interview questions in advance </li></ul><ul><li>Is not into promotion </li></ul>
Types of Media <ul><li>Newspapers </li></ul><ul><li>Radio </li></ul><ul><li>Television </li></ul><ul><li>Magazines </li></ul><ul><li>Web and new media </li></ul><ul><li>Video </li></ul>
Types of Stories <ul><li>News </li></ul><ul><li>Features </li></ul><ul><li>Opinion </li></ul><ul><li>Interviews </li></ul><ul><li>Letters to the Editor </li></ul>
What Makes News <ul><li>Superlatives – biggest, smallest, oldest, first </li></ul><ul><li>Impact on people </li></ul><ul><li>Link with other events or issues </li></ul><ul><li>Conflict </li></ul><ul><li>Celebrity connection </li></ul>
Media Messages <ul><li>Focus on three to five key messages </li></ul><ul><li>Emphasize the impact on people </li></ul><ul><li>Keep messages succinct and simple </li></ul><ul><li>Use active verbs </li></ul><ul><li>Find the “sticky message” </li></ul>
Media Interviews <ul><li>Breathe deeply </li></ul><ul><li>Relax and smile </li></ul><ul><li>Use a “message track” </li></ul><ul><li>Don’t fill silences </li></ul><ul><li>Look interviewer in eye </li></ul><ul><li>Everything is on the record </li></ul>
Making a Media Pitch <ul><li>Compile a list of reporters </li></ul><ul><li>See the story from a reporter’s perspective </li></ul><ul><li>Be clear and concise </li></ul><ul><li>Be timely </li></ul>
Making a Media Pitch <ul><li>Identify the project </li></ul><ul><li>Identify the issues </li></ul><ul><li>Identify the characters </li></ul><ul><li>Identify the stories </li></ul>
Making the Pitch <ul><li>The Project </li></ul><ul><li>don’t use acronyms </li></ul>
Making the Pitch <ul><li>The Issues </li></ul><ul><li>Boil down to the basics </li></ul><ul><li>Focus on the human angle </li></ul><ul><li>Highlight conflict </li></ul><ul><li>Link to current events </li></ul>
<ul><li>The Characters </li></ul><ul><li>Showcase key individuals </li></ul>Making the Pitch
<ul><li>The Stories </li></ul><ul><li>Suggest a narrative </li></ul><ul><li>Think visuals </li></ul>Making the Pitch
<ul><li>Dear X: I am writing about the upcoming AIDS conference in Toronto. IDRC will be there and I have several story suggestions that will interest your audience: a former union leader in Swaziland mobilizing with HIV-positive women to combat stigma and provide food to orphans; young Peruvian men and women from poor communities banding together in cyberspace to help fight HIV/AIDS; women selling their bodies in the “hungry season” to feed their families. Researchers from the developing world will be available for interviews. You can reach me at: </li></ul>Making the Pitch
<ul><li>Put yourself in the audience’s shoes </li></ul><ul><li>Be prepared </li></ul><ul><li>See media as allies </li></ul><ul><li>Stay on message </li></ul>Making the Pitch: Tips
<ul><li>Include organization’s name and date </li></ul><ul><li>Follow with a headline </li></ul><ul><li>Start with conclusion </li></ul><ul><li>Arrange in short paragraphs </li></ul><ul><li>Use a quote </li></ul><ul><li>Include backgrounder and/or bios </li></ul><ul><li>Include contact information and website </li></ul>How to Write a News Release
How to Write a News Release: Tips <ul><li>Use simple, everyday language </li></ul><ul><li>Give it the human touch </li></ul><ul><li>Avoid jargon and acronyms </li></ul><ul><li>Use the active voice </li></ul><ul><li>Send two or three days ahead of time </li></ul>
How to Write a News Release <ul><li>Consider attaching a backgrounder or bio </li></ul><ul><li>Remember that news releases are not always effective </li></ul><ul><li>Consider other ways to get a reporter’s attention </li></ul>
<ul><li>Hold event early in the day </li></ul><ul><li>Advertise widely and follow up </li></ul><ul><li>Take special care of logistics </li></ul><ul><li>Prepare speaker and practice </li></ul><ul><li>Consider visual events such as a field visit </li></ul>How to Hold a News Conference or Public Event
How to Cultivate Reporters <ul><li>Update your list of key reporters </li></ul><ul><li>Arrange face-to-face meetings </li></ul><ul><li>Have some information to offer </li></ul><ul><li>Try to understand their needs </li></ul>
The Exclusive <ul><li>Journalists are competitive </li></ul><ul><li>Exclusive stories help their careers </li></ul><ul><li>Respect an offer of exclusivity </li></ul><ul><li>Feel free to recycle the story to other reporters later </li></ul>
How to Handle Media Requests <ul><li>Always be prompt </li></ul><ul><li>Keep reporter in the loop </li></ul><ul><li>Be prepared with facts and figures </li></ul><ul><li>Be both professional and personable </li></ul>
Be Ready to Respond <ul><li>Monitor the media </li></ul><ul><li>Monitor events </li></ul><ul><li>Consider a letter to editor or op-ed </li></ul>
Evaluation <ul><li>Keep a media tally </li></ul><ul><li>Analyze quality as well as quantity </li></ul>
<ul><li>Good luck with the media! </li></ul>Summary