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Researchers, Reporters & Everything in Between


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Researchers, Reporters & Everything in Between

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A talk about how academic researchers can understand and navigate the news media and institutional communications landscape, prepared for the University of Michigan National Clinician Scholars Program

A talk about how academic researchers can understand and navigate the news media and institutional communications landscape, prepared for the University of Michigan National Clinician Scholars Program


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Researchers, Reporters & Everything in Between

  1. 1. Researchers, Reporters & Everything in Between Using the communications ecosystem to extend your work’s reach
  2. 2. Who am I? • Michigan Medicine Department of Communication • IHPI communication team • Trained in biology, science writing & journalism • 25+ years’ experience communicating about research
  3. 3. • Find & tell stories • Handle news media inquiries • Push stories & info out any way I can • Help IHPI researchers with communication strategy & tactics What do I do?
  4. 4. Why does U-M* have staff like me? • So we can reach people who care • So our faculty members’ expertise can have impact • To be accountable to taxpayers & policymakers • Because most people need research translated for them *and lots of other places too
  5. 5. Why should you work with us? To enhance the odds that your work & expertise will reach people who can act on them, now & in the future.
  6. 6. You • Papers • Talks & posters • Tweets & posts • Commentaries Comm Staff • U-M/Michigan Med. • School/college • IHPI • Center/institute/dept. Reporters • Policymakers • Advocates • Clinicians & Patients • Funders/Donors • Professional societies • Industry • General public The U-M Communications Ecosystem
  7. 7. What does the public know? •71% extremely/very confident: mental illness is a medical condition affecting the brain (21% somewhat confident) •69% extremely/very confident: a genetic code in cells helps determine who we are (22% somewhat confident) •53% extremely/very confident: childhood vaccines are safe and effective (30% somewhat confident) •31% extremely/very confident: life evolved through natural selection (24% somewhat confident) AP poll published April 2014; 1,012 adults rated confidence in a scientific concept
  8. 8. What do they think about science? Pew Research Center’s US survey 2019 (left) and International Science Survey 2019–2020 (right)
  9. 9. How do views of science vary by political leaning? Pew Research Center’s International Science Survey 2019–2020
  10. 10. How did the pandemic change things? Pew Trusts 2020 (December) /2020/05/21/trust-in-medical- scientists-has-grown-in-u-s-but- mainly-among-democrats/
  11. 11. NSF Science & Engineering Indicators 2022 – 3M survey 2019 and 2020
  12. 12. Are genetically modified foods safe to eat? Scientists: 88% Public: 37% Should childhood vaccines be required? Scientists: 86% Public: 68% Is research involving animals OK? Scientists: 89% Public: 47% Did humans “evolve”? Scientists: 98% Public: 65% The survey of the general public was conducted using a probability-based sample of the adult population by landline and cellular telephone Aug. 15-25, 2014, with a representative sample of 2,002 adults nationwide. Their views vs. scientists’ views
  13. 13. Researchers & policymakers • Policy should be based on evidence • Formal testimony, informal conversations, service on advisory committees, briefs & one-pagers • Staffers may have little or no medical/scientific background • Tendency to seize on controversies and what’s in the news
  14. 14. For 200 years… • Information flowed to the public from officials via gatekeepers: • News media • Entertainment & publishing industry • Educators & librarians • Journalists as the ‘fourth estate’ of society • Academic research & PR since WWII
  15. 15. Last 20 years… • Traditional news media’s gatekeeper & watchdog role has eroded with its business model.
  16. 16. The news media’s goals • Serve the public interest • Inform their outlet’s target audience and hold their attention • Be first, best or most compelling • Operate within medium’s constraints • Build audience • Sell advertising (often based on clicks)
  17. 17. What makes a reporter tick? • Most serve a general audience • Little scientific knowledge • Need to know implications for ordinary people • Most are on tight deadlines • Respond within hours or redirect them ASAP • Most have little space/time to tell the story • Reductions in staff and space/airtime have made it worse! • ALL value their independence • You probably won’t see the questions/story ahead of time
  18. 18. Tips for media interactions • Prepare with PR person • three key points • Use layperson’s terms • avoid jargon, speak colloquially • If there’s a press release, use it • Respect deadlines • Understand the news outlet & reason for request • It’s OK to say no to some requests/do some by email • Respect their independence
  19. 19. Can you pass the Thanksgiving Table Test?
  20. 20. Use the time AHEAD of publication The “Scout’s honor” embargo system for research news • Institution/journal reaches out to reporters a few days ahead • Reporter agrees not to publish or broadcast results until a set date/time • Used by all major journals & scientific/medical societies
  21. 21. The embargo system •Increases the newsworthiness of research news •Gives institutions time to prepare text, graphics, video •Gives reporters time to prepare stories on complex issues, and increases accuracy/balance
  22. 22. Preprints & “science by press release” Do research Compile results Give talks or posters Write papers Get peer- reviewed Make changes Get published Maybe publicity Traditional medical & scientific process Do research Compile results Write a preprint Post to server Get peer- reviewed Make changes Get published Seek publicity Accelerated/altered path since COVID-19 Journalists or social media users Press release but little data “Raw” version online Occasional publicity
  23. 23. Pitfalls to avoid: • Going into interviews without a core message & caveats • Too-casual quotes given as offhand remarks • Getting chummy with reporters you’ve worked with before • Pay-to-play schemes • Assuming too much knowledge on reporter’s part • Going ‘off the record’ or ‘on background’ • Speaking beyond your expertise !
  24. 24. Important reminders: • Involved with industry/spinoffs? Disclose to communicators & reporters; keep a bright line between roles • Asked to comment on someone else’s work? You can say no – but tell reporter who else they can contact • Log your media hits for your CV. Share them on social media. • Thank & compliment reporters – even if you’re also asking for a correction/clarification
  25. 25. Track activity via Altmetrics • Aggregates activity around journal articles: • media coverage • blog posts • social media activity • more • Traces links to/mentions of papers by DOI • Assigns a score & percentile • Not perfect! But getting better
  26. 26. A New Era The traditional news media’s gatekeeper role & business model are eroding Social & crowdsourced platforms, and search engines, have gained incredible power
  27. 27. Everyone can be a publisher.
  28. 28. But… The “old guard” news media & their newer cousins still create or influence much of the content shared on these platforms. Though reporting staffs are smaller, they still use the journalistic information-gathering approach. Institutions have become publishers too.
  29. 29. Half of Americans surveyed by Pew Research said they often or sometimes get news via social media platforms.
  30. 30. What does this mean for science? • Patients, donors, advocates find info on their own • Social media reaches people directly • Visuals are vital • Rapid response to crisis/controversy is expected If it’s not on the Web, and not easily found, it doesn’t exist!
  31. 31. Who are the communications staff? Three media relations “front doors” • Michigan News (All research/education except Medical School) • Michigan Medicine Public Relations (Clinical, Medical School research/education) • U-M Public Affairs (institutional ‘sticky’ issues) First point of contact for reporters and faculty (Not always required – but a good idea!)
  32. 32. • Acts as matchmaker & goalie for faculty/reporter contact • Covers assigned beats • Creates & distributes stories • Gets your approval on what they write Your media relations person:
  33. 33. IHPI: Investing in communication • Staff: Communication manager, Government Relations (2), Media Relations, Writer, Designer, Communication specialist, Events/member engagement person • Channels: Website, member profiles, news articles, issue briefs, Twitter, LinkedIn, internal & external newsletters, videos, graphics, digital signs • Training: Twitter, LinkedIn, Government Relations, Opinion Writing
  34. 34. U-M: Schools/colleges, centers/institutes, departments/divisions Outside: VA, journals, funding agencies, professional societies, conference organizers, companies, advocacy groups, disease-specific groups Other communicators
  35. 35. • Major papers accepted/scheduled • Expertise related to breaking/ forthcoming news • Reporter contacts you directly • Others want to involve you in their media efforts When to contact your PR person:
  36. 36. “Brand journalism” • Our own news organization • Sharing cutting-edge research news & clinical stories • Aimed at professionals & public • Jump on timely news topics quickly • Shared on web, social media and email • Optimized for search engine visibility
  37. 37. High visibility • 10.3 million pageviews in FY2022 • 471 stories published in 2022 • 65-75% of traffic comes from Google search • 10% from direct links • 5% from “organic” social media and 8% from paid social media boosting • Additional traffic from podcasts • 12,000 email subscribers • Soon: integrating into Michigan Medicine’s new web environment
  38. 38.
  39. 39. Write for • Platform to reach the public on timely topics • Articles created by academics, shaped by professional editors • Open copyright for republishing • Routinely republished by major media outlets • Easily shared via social media and the web • Authors can see data on views & republishing
  40. 40. Recent U-M examples Showcasing past research in light of current events Sharing previously published and unpublished/un-peer- reviewed data relating to current events
  41. 41. I challenge you… • Learn to speak their language & engage in public communication. • Don’t just hope someone else will do it! • See it as part of a research career.
  42. 42. On the record. The information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name. Off the record. The information cannot be used for publication. Background. The information can be published but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position. Deep background. The information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity. Definitions
  43. 43. Legal Liability? “It is the University’s policy to defend and indemnify employees who become parties to legal proceedings by virtue of their good faith efforts to perform their responsibilities of employment.” Recent U-M General Counsel advice to a faculty member who was asked to comment on a controversial treatment: “Commenting in your professional capacity regarding the risks, benefits, potential results, etc. of a particular treatment or procedure would constitute actions taken in the course of your employment (as opposed to in your personal capacity) and if done in good faith would entitle you to the protections of the policy.”