ASSESSING YOUR STORIES AND MESSAGES
So you’re ready to seek publicity for a new piece of research? Great! But do you know how to assess your story value, refine your media pitch and improve your chances of publicity? Check out these 10 points from our media experts.
What is your story? What key points do you want to convey?
If you can’t explain it simply, don’t expect anyone else to get it.
Will others find it interesting?
Road test your potential story with people in your target audience. If you get the thumbs down, rethink your storyline.
How far will your story travel? Has it got legs?
What’s the audience? Just your field of academia and associated industry? Your city or state? Is the issue a national or international one? This helps you choose your media targets: research publications; local media; national print, radio and TV; or international media.
What makes your story different?
Is there something new? Are there important trends? Can you highlight novel parts of your research to grab media and public attention?
Have you looked for the human angle?
A great case study will help humanise and better explain an issue.
Can you relate your story to a newsworthy event?
There’s a day of the year for just about everything but only some – like International Women’s Day – will give you a story tie-in. However, there may be a seasonal event, a conference, an election or a prominent holiday you can link into.
Can you give your research a snappier title?
There’s a reason why headlines are important in the media: they grab people’s attention. A short, pithy, clever title is best, or at least one that’s to the point. And make sure the abstract of your paper quickly conveys the research outcomes.
Have you chosen the right front person to promote your story?
Ensure you include the person or people who can talk about the nitty-gritty of the work and provide the best quotes to journalists.
If your story is time-sensitive, are you releasing it at the best time?
Is it likely to be overtaken by other clearly predictable events? If so, rethink the timing.
Is there a story in your academic area you have overlooked?
Put yourself in an outsider’s shoes and look at what you do with fresh eyes. Bounce some ideas off your colleagues.
HOW TO WORK WELL WITH JOURNALISTS
Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way first. Yes, there are some journalists with few scruples and many negative agendas. Your first interview with them is likely to be your last, but hopefully, you’ll learn from the experience.
However, there are hundreds of journalists and media outlets out there with high standards, a genuine interest in your area of expertise and the desire to write fair, balanced news copy.
Professor Tim Harcourt of UTS Business School says academics should treat journalists as partners in the process, not the enemy. ‘You are the expert – they need you for the story but can help you get your message out,’ he says.
Professor Steven Rowley of Curtin Business School says it’s a very symbiotic relationship. ‘The more you get out there, the more likely journalists will get back to you. The more industry is aware of what you’re doing, the more potential there is for future partnerships, and the easier it is to disseminate future research findings.
Swinburne Business School’s Dr Jason Pallant knows the publications that are read and valued by his industry targets, and he prioritises communications to them.
‘I’ve had people from organisations reach out and say I saw your piece on this, I found it really interesting, I would love to hear more about your research and opportunities. That is a great win that can build partnerships and relationships moving forward,’ Dr Pallant says.
Dr Michael Callaghan of Deakin University never made a conscious decision to build his public profile but had been involved in a broad range of activities from marketing through ethics and corporate governance to human resources and management.
He follows up with reporters after initial encounters and connects with them on social media, building his networks over time. He has cultivated a lot of relationships with journalists, including a couple with whom he catches up every week, even though this may not result in stories.
Talking with journalists regularly feeds into his broad range of understanding and engagement with the world, which he says makes him a better, more relevant teacher.
Professor Warren Hogan of UTS Business School has been doing interviews for some years and has built his profile by being available and constructive.
‘It’s a two-way thing. They want someone to quote, they want an expert. But there’s more to it than that. There’s the relationship. So, you as an expert can be very useful to a journalist by being available to have a chat, to talk not about the story that day, but to help them build their expertise.’
Professor Elizabeth Sheedy of Macquarie Business School has developed relationships with journalists who cover banking and finance – the industry most relevant to her work.
‘The advantage is that quite often, when a big story comes up, they’ll approach me for comment, or I can send an email and say: Are you writing a story on this? Or perhaps a first story has already come out and you can say: Are you planning on any follow-up story, because I’ve got a few things I could say on that?’
Conor Duffy, National Education Reporter, ABC, says being respectful, being in contact and being available are key. Helping journalists with stories they’re working on and connecting them with someone they need, even if there’s no obvious benefit to you, creates a lot of professional respect.
Peter Ryan, Senior Business Correspondent, ABC, says media need to spend a lot of time building relationships at different levels. It’s a good sign if he successfully puts through an early morning or evening call, and he’ll then work on that relationship.
MAKING POWERPOINTS WITH PUNCH
Have you ever dozed off during a PowerPoint presentation, or completely disengaged because it was badly designed, hard to follow or overwhelmed by too many complex details? Even worse, have you ever seen members of your own audience dozing off or disengaging during your presentation?
Here’s how to avoid delivering death by PowerPoint:
What’s the purpose of your PowerPoint/slide deck? Is it for a presentation, a handout, or both? Detailed slides may work as readable handouts but may need heavy modification to effectively accompany a talk. Consider two sets of slides.
Don’t load slides with too many words. We talk at roughly three words per second. So don’t put 60 words on a slide when you’re only going to talk to it for several seconds. You’ll kill your key points in the blur of words. The slide is not supposed to feature everything you want to say. No more than three bullet points per slide, and no text smaller than 24-point or 30-point font.
Is your presentation for an in-person talk or a webinar? If it’s in-person, the audience will be looking at you, your slides and whatever else is of interest around the room. During a webinar they are only looking at the slides, with possibly a tiny ‘you’ talking in the corner of the screen. So you usually need more slides in a webinar to keep up the momentum.
It’s a visual medium so make it visually compelling. Look for surprising and engaging images. Avoid unnecessary, generic or meaningless images, and pictures that don’t support the spoken words.
Stay in style. Be consistent with fonts, colours and formatting throughout. Loads of cut-and-pasted content can look horribly messy and unprofessional. If a conference organiser asks you to use the conference PowerPoint template, this may leave little room for your content on each slide. Even then, maintain your consistency of style and either use more slides or cut back your content.
Don’t use very detailed charts or overly complex diagrams. Distil the key points on the slides and save the details for the handout. If you have to say ‘I know you can’t read this’, then why are you putting up the slide?
Simplify numbers and percentages as much as possible. Figures should punch, not be ponderous.
Use visual effects sparingly. Overuse of effects such as cool transitions between slides can be distracting and look like you are opting for novelty over authority.
Always have a backup if you have an embedded video or will link to online content. This is the gremlins’ favourite playground. So have the video file available separately on the computer along with screenshots of the online content.
Take a PDF of your presentation as well as the PowerPoint file. Sometimes technology does not want to play in one format but may be fine in another. One of life’s many mysteries.
When requested, do send advance PowerPoint presentations. Handing over a portable drive five minutes before your talk is very stressful for event organisers. It’s also wise to request time to road test the presentation before you speak.
GRAB ATTENTION WITH YOUR MEDIA RELEASE
Think like a journalist and write your media release as if it’s a news story.
That means a compelling headline; the most important elements at the start; active, clear and concise writing; and direct quotes from one or more people.
- Use just one A4 page but don’t cheat by using a font smaller than 11-point or ridiculously narrow page. If there’s too much information, provide background or relevant facts on a second page.
- Have a one-line punchy headline (up to about six words). Add a short subheading only if that second point is vital.
- Date the media release at the top of the If it involves an event, ensure the event date, time and location are also at the top.
- Detail any spokespeople available. Put the name, title, email address and mobile phone number of one or two contacts at the bottom of the page. Ensure one contact is available from early morning to late at night to cover different time zones and news deadlines.
- Detail any audio, video and/or still images available for media use.
- Include social media handles like @businessdeans for Twitter or your LinkedIn address.
Content and Writing Style
- Put the most important points at the top. If you haven’t grabbed attention in the first paragraph or two, your release will probably hit the bin.
- Include direct quotes from your spokesperson or spokespeople.
- Write in an active, not passive manner. Active: The cat sat on the mat. Passive: The mat was sat on by the cat.
- Keep language simple and to the point.
- Be specific and say exactly what you mean. It’s not a facility: it’s an office block, hospital, factory, etc.
- Don’t waste words. Eg: most rather than the majority of; now, not at this point in time. And avoid cliches.
- Don’t put too many ideas into one sentence. Never underestimate the value of a full stop.
- Use one sentence only per paragraph. Short, sharp paragraphs are the style – check out some newspaper stories.
- Forget unnecessary or meaningless modifiers. Eg: anonymous stranger, advance warning or collaborate together.
- Avoid jargon. People outside your field of expertise may not know what you’re talking about.
- Avoid or explain acronyms. If you must use acronyms, spell out the full name and put the acronym in brackets the first time it is used. For example, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Then use the acronym for subsequent mentions.
- Double check the meaning of words and spelling. Don’t rely solely on spell-check. Watch out for American spellings like organization (US spelling) instead of organisation (Australian spelling).
- Road test your media release on a couple of people who know nothing about its subject matter. Is it clear, do they understand it and is it of interest to them?
- At least one other person should proofread it and check for typos and other glitches. Even small mistakes detract from your credibility so it’s worth paying attention to detail.
NINE WAYS TO AVOID ‘GOTCHA’ MOMENTS
Who hasn’t winced at those ‘gotcha’ moments in media interviews, particularly during this Election campaigns?
When Greens leader Adam Bandt responded to a gotcha-style question with ‘Google it, mate’, he was right on the money. But what are other ways to avoid being caught on the hop?
Here’s the start of a list gleaned from professional experience and high-profile journalists and academics interviewed for the ABDC’s communications guide.
- Establish the areas the journalist wants to cover. If they’re not in your field of expertise, say so and see if you can pass the
opportunity to a colleague. (This will prevent you possibly making a fool of yourself – and your colleague may return the favour by directing more appropriate media to you)
- Be clear on your boundaries. Know what you can and can’t say, or will and won’t say
- Practice the key points you want to get across before the interview
- Review any relevant research, statistics and data. Have fast facts at hand
- Be prepared for the worst possible things you could be asked.
Minimise the chance of unwelcome surprises. Identify hot issues and practise your response with your communications expert (if
you have one) or a savvy colleague.
- If you think a journalist may be setting you up or have an underlying negative agenda, decline the interview. Remember the
journalist has final say over the story. Do you really want to play with fire?
- Don’t discuss areas outside of your expertise. ‘I’m not the right person to answer that question’ is a reasonable response
- If a journalist’s questions include inflammatory words you don’t like, don’t repeat them in your answer. Otherwise you may supply an unintended, but very quotable, quote.
- Unless you have a strong trusting relationship with a journalist,
assume EVERYTHING you say is on the record – including before
and after the interview. Also remember microphones can be much
more sensitive than human ears.
SCATTERGUN OR EXCLUSIVE?
You believe you’ve got a good story that may interest a wide audience, so do you go scattergun or exclusive?
Scattergun involves sending a media release or alert to many media either using your own contact list or through an organisation that distributes media releases for a fee. The aim is to hit as many targets as possible in the hope that some will use your story.
With an exclusive, you offer your story to only one journalist or media outlet. Journalists obviously like being the recipient of exclusives and may invest time and energy into creating a great exclusive story.
If you offer an exclusive, make sure it’s for a defined period of time. Otherwise, the media organisation may delay using it for any number of internal reasons, leaving you with no media coverage and the inability to offer the story elsewhere.
Another possible downside of the exclusive is that you may annoy other journalists, particularly on a specialist round, if you frequently play favourites. Best to spread the love around if you prefer to go exclusive.
The ABC’s National Education Reporter, Conor Duffy, is an advocate for people being brave enough to give a story to only one journalist. “For most stories you’re probably better off going with one person because they’ll be able to invest time in your story rather than getting a media release hours before an embargo lifts. Good journalists do their own work and their own sort of investigations to tease out those ideas.”
But Duffy agrees with having a deadline on the exclusivity. He says: “Maybe give people a week beyond what they’ve said because news cycles do fluctuate. Sometimes if I’ve got a good story I will hold it for a couple of days, because I know that when the Liberal Party spill or whatever is out of the news cycle, there’s going to be a lot more space for it.
“But yeah, some journalists will, if they think they can get away with it, just have it sit on the shelf for way too long. So I think you just need to be firm and clear and say: We’re giving this to you exclusively. Run it or give it up.”
Duffy adds you can also put out a wider media release after an exclusive story has run, which would probably be picked up in a number of places.
SPEAKING ACADEMIC AND JOURNALESE
Academic writing is generally formal, complex and passive in style. Journalists write in a clear, concise and active style that doesn’t waste words.
So how do academics switch from one to the other, and why is it important?
Let’s hear it from a couple of journalists:
“The people I like to speak to most – and there’s only a few of them – are people who know the subject really well but can also express it very, very clearly and concisely in a few words. There are not many people who can do that, but they’re gold,” says John Ross, Asia-Pacific Editor, Times Higher Education.
Julie Hare, Higher Education Editor of the Australian Financial Review, puts it more bluntly. “What cheeses me off the most is people who just talk in that awful bland, high umbrella kind of language that’s meaningless and doesn’t have anything that speaks to reality.”
She adds: “I’ve spoken to scientists about some of the most obscure stuff in the universe and they can still explain it to you – that whole elevator pitch thing. Everything can be explained; you’ve just got to work out how to explain it.”
So, if you want to get your research out there in media land, you may need to change your thinking and language.
First, make sure you actually have something newsworthy to say. Then clarify it.
Professor Marian Baird of The University of Sydney Business School says if she can explain to students the research process and outcomes, she should be able to do that to the general public.
Next, think about your audience. What do people want or need to know?
Professor Nick Wailes of UNSW Business School recalls writing a 700-word opinion piece many years ago at the request of a university media person.
“The media person just turned it around and said the final paragraph was actually what you should start with…and then the rest of it is unpacking and explaining it.”
“What that made pretty clear to me was that writing a journal article and being effective in the media were two very different things,” he says.
Your points must be conveyed in plain English – and don’t add qualifications. As Professor Ray Da Silva of UWA Business School says: “There’s no need for you to add X, Y and Z. Get to the point; give them a soundbite.”
If you or your communications people are responding in writing to media questions, provide usable information promptly.
This may sound obvious, but journalist John Ross finds that written responses can take up to two days. Responses are often brief and may contain a lot of waffle words or dot points that don’t answer his questions.
“It’s obfuscation. Journalists become used to this sort of stuff and it just increases your suspicion levels and your scepticism,” Ross says.
FIVE TIPS FOR GIVING GOOD INTERVIEWS
Good media interviews, where you get your desired message across clearly and concisely, don’t just happen. Here’s what our experts advise.
- Prepare, prepare and prepare some
- Who’s the audience: think how to tailor your language and content.
- What are your three key messages?
- Keep abreast of current issues and have responses ready.
- Set your boundaries: what will you say or not say?
Preparation is the absolute key: you’re the subject expert, but you need to distil down all the information in your head for the sake of clarity. Remember: if you get three clear messages across in one news media interview, you’re doing very well.
Tailor your language and content to the audience. Interviews for specialist publications with readers are across a lot of terminologies are very different from interviews for a more general audience.
Keep on top of your research sector and current issues. Professor Gary Mortimer of QUT Business School reads three newspapers every morning to stay abreast of retail business issues and has comments ready for forthcoming industry events.
Don’t get caught on the hop if you’re not ready to discuss a topic. Professor Nick Wailes of UNSW will try to buy a couple of hours after a media contact, get up to speed on current data and jot down his key points before an interview.
Know what you can and cannot say, and don’t discuss subjects outside your area of expertise. Think about any hot topics that you may be questioned on. It may be wise to discuss your responses with your university communications person or a colleague with extensive media experience.
Practise your answers out loud until you feel comfortable with them or, better still, run them past a colleague. Spoken words always come out differently from thoughts, so it’s best to warm up before an interview.
CONTRIBUTING TO POLICY MAKING
Are academics contributing enough to wider public and policy conversations? If not, how do we do it better?
Tim Dodd, Higher Education Editor at The Australian, suggests barriers include the hollowing out of expertise in the public service and its politicisation, and the rising power of political advisors who may be inexperienced in policymaking.
Dodd sees a huge role – ideally played by academics with expertise in their field – in advising people who are devising policies. But that does not happen enough.
‘It’s something that everyone has to work at – from those in government, to those in academia, to those in the media, to those who have any sort of a platform or influence.’
Associate Professor Steven Rowley of Curtin Business School believes the difficulty of communicating directly with policymakers means relying on your research publications reaching them, which can sometimes happen through the links of research funders or platforms like LinkedIn.
So what are the best pathways to policymakers?
An analysis of 5% of the searchable database of impact case studies, compiled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in 2015, found those most commonly cited by researchers were:
- Publications – particularly peer-reviewed journals
- Advisory roles – contributing to inquiries, reports, panels and committees
- Media coverage
- Partnerships and collaborations with industry and NGOs
- Presentations with industry, the public and government.
We can debate the merits of each pathway but, for many academics, media coverage is often the best bet in the absence of direct access to policymakers.
BLOGS OR OPINION PIECES – WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Blogs are great ways to document your reflections, ideas and research progress, and to build collegial networks through a wide range of online media.
Opinion pieces, published in print and online media, are usually around 700 words, need a compelling opening and should give readers new insights into current issues. A bit of controversy also rarely goes astray.
So, which should you use to build your profile and get your research out there?
If you have a ground-breaking study or if your research is very relevant to a hot issue, you may have a good opinion piece.
Tim Dodd, Higher Education Editor for The Australian, says: ‘We’re looking for things which say something new, which give people insights that they might not have thought of, and which are well written and clearly written.’
Regular contributors have a history of saying new things in a readable way. ‘Everyone has limited time and limited attention and we actually need to offer stories which people are going to think are worth their time.’
Opinion pieces, which let you maintain control over your content, are a good choice when you want something to change. Hone your main points so they hit the mark with stiletto-like precision, then write to persuade with passion, expertise and conviction.
Give an informed opinion with supporting evidence and leave the rants to columnists who specialise in that type of writing.
As far as blogs are concerned: ‘Creating accessible blog posts about your research, studies or projects can be painless and quick, and is a great route to opening up your content to wider audiences,’ say the authors of Communicating Your Research with Social Media.
You can quickly set up a free individual blog online, which may suit if you’re committed to writing regularly. You may also find externally hosted blog collectives with a group of frequent contributors, or professional blogs with academic commentary on sites such as The Guardian or The Conversation.
You can harness almost any content, but you should post regularly if you want to build up a following.
Here’s how you can use your blogs:
- Research. Unlike peer-reviewed journal articles that have long publishing timeframes, blogs provide instant ongoing commentary and conversations about your thinking, approach to challenges, interim findings and progress. The more insightful and interactive you are, the more people are likely to follow you.
- Explainers and guides. Demystify complex areas and expand your audience.
- Reaching practitioners and policymakers. What are the practical applications of your work? How might you influence the current narrative? What does your analysis show?
- Current affairs commentary. Some disciplines like economics lend themselves to real-time commenting on events.
- Event commentary. Report on events such as conferences, with useful summaries and highlighted insights.
HOW THESE ACADEMICS IMPROVED THEIR MEDIA ENGAGEMENT
Some academics have an instinct for creating newsworthy stories and building good media relationships. Others succeed after working hard at it, while some simply cringe at the thought of having to do a media interview.
Here are some tips from five academics who have mastered the art:
Professor Rae Cooper of The University of Sydney Business School was ‘absolutely forced’ to do her first media interview when nobody else was available. She was also coerced into media training and hated the first three months of media interviews.
“Then I just realised it’s kind of like lecturing. So first semester is hell, you over-prepare and you are probably the best you ever are in terms of your performance in front of a class. Then you get how to do this.”
Julia Richardson of Curtin Business School had something of a ‘mid-life crisis’ when she questioned whether all her articles in academic journals really mattered.
‘I remember I slogged and slogged over this article to get it published. I think it took me two years of my life that I’ll never get back. ‘Then I looked at some stats on it and I realised that something like 180 people had read it.’
Professor Richardson saw that her public talks generated the most feedback and decided that was where she could have the most impact.
‘So it was at that point that I thought I’ve got to get more of those Conversation pieces’
Dr Louise Grimmer of UTAS Business School made her first foray into media with an opinion piece for her local newspaper in Hobart.
‘That started to get me thinking, you know, I can do this. I can write about the things that I’m researching and teaching,’ she says.
Dr Grimmer then wrote her first article for The Conversation with Gary Mortimer, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour at QUT. She believes the frequent publication of their articles shows they are of interest to the public.
Risk governance in financial institutions became a hot topic in the media a few years back, and the interest has not abated.
So, when Professor Elizabeth Sheedy, a risk governance expert at Macquarie Business School, found media beating a path to her office, she found it ‘a little nerve-wracking because the issues are so controversial’.
She decided to face the challenge as she had research findings that were relevant to the industry. She has now had media involvement for many years.
Dr Jason Pallant of Swinburne Business School has found that saying ‘yes’ and doing it quickly has brought journalists back to him.
‘If you want to be the go-to person, you’ve got to be willing to get a phone call at 7.45am because at 8.15am they need a spot on the radio filled and they want an immediate comment on that morning’s news. So you need to be quick at responding, quick at saying yes and formulating a view you can share.’
HOW DO YOU MEASURE THE SUCCESS OF YOUR COMMUNICATIONS?
Communications are almost always works in progress – and so too is their evaluation. First up, it’s obviously important to know what you want to achieve and how you’ll reach your goals.
But how will you measure success in engaging and positively impacting your key stakeholders?
People often measure what is easiest, including so-called ‘vanity metrics’ on social media, such as ‘likes’ or ‘impressions’. Email newsletter distribution services can report who opens newsletters and how many times they forward them. Media monitoring agencies can provide statistics to show that one story has reached a certain number of consumers.
But say you are quoted in a media outlet that reaches one million people, or you have hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, or you are frequently posting content that inspires loads of reactions. Does this really give you the answers you need? For example:
- Who ‘likes’ you? Who are your followers? Have you been able to cut through the noise and encourage people to apply your information in practical ways?
- Can any of your work be attributed directly to a major shift in government policy, incremental industry changes or re-framing of public narratives?
- Has media exposure of your work resulted in new industry or research partnerships? Has it attracted more students to your courses?
- Would a stakeholder consider using you as an expert researcher, speaker or consultant?
HOW FUNDING CAN FOLLOW IMPACT
There’s a growing expectation that universities will create and share new and useful knowledge in return for public money invested in education and research. And it’s not just governments looking for evidence of research impacts – so are other potential funding partners.
Dr Michael Callaghan of Deakin Business School suggests somebody in the research team should be thinking: What things are we doing here that are going to have practical implications and actually are going to be interesting enough to be reported in the media down the track?
Professor Mark Reed offers further advice from The Research Impact Handbook, paraphrased below:
- Design the impacts you want into research from the outset.
- Represent systematically the needs and priorities of those who might be interested in or use your research.
- Engage with empathy to build long-term, two-way, and trusting relationships so you can ideally co-generate new knowledge.
- Show early impact. Many people researchers work with expect impacts in weeks and months. Partly this is about managing expectations, but it is also about trying your best to deliver tangible results as soon as possible, which can help keep people engaged with your work.
- Reflect and sustain. Keep track of what works, so you can improve your knowledge exchange, continue nurturing relationships and generate impacts. Avoid repeating the mistakes of others when you share what works – as well as your failures – with colleagues.
- Keep asking who benefits and how.