Our much-anticipated ‘Media’ event took place on 14th June with media consultant, Don Powell, helping a group of us to peek behind the scenes of a press office.
Previously of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Don was their first Press and PR Officer in January 2000, just as ‘genomes’ were hitting the headlines.
Don gave out a selection of newspapers and asked us to consider “What is News?” We all selected one story of interest to us and considered what made us choose that story. Was it pithy, sad, funny and/or did it resonate with us personally?
Much fun was made of certain newspapers but we were made to question our own views. A press officer would be unwise to discount these papers due to their huge circulation figures (the Daily Mail Online has a massive audience for example). We learnt that taking out technical jargon is not dumbing down science stories – it simply helps the journalist to talk in laymen’s terms at times!
How to engage with journalists was very interesting and I was able to compare how things are now to how they were when I worked in trade magazines over 10 years’ ago. Changes in technology mean that journalists are stretched and are often writing for at least two titles or are covering one huge subject themselves. Building relationships is key as is giving journalists what they want: interesting stories, ideally with a case-study, and publish-ready graphics. Don suggested looking at the New Scientist for an example of what is being published and how.
No stranger to a press release, Don took us through the content and timings of a news release in detail including the importance of lining up the possible questions and answers that you may well get if a story is picked up. As well as good content, usually contained in the first two paragraphs, the key message was to make it visually exciting for the reader.
Don’s own litmus test when getting people to be succinct about their work is if they can describe it to his (93-year-old) mum in three easy to understand ‘steps’ or sentences.
It was fun to hear people try this and we waded in with some good old q and a’s to test the theory. Why is methane rising? And why does it matter? Two of the questions fired at a volunteer speaker!
Don wrapped up the evening with a note on embargoes and advice on his own timings: plus why he sends releases in advance to key journalists and why third party endorsements are so essential.
And the end result of all this hard work with the press releases is hopefully the interview. Skills for being interviewed were touched on – get some training was the suggestion and be honest, open and truthful but also be in control: don’t be tempted to fill a silence!
What makes a good press officer and why bother to communicate well? Don asked these two questions to conclude the session. My take-home message was that the good work that we are all doing should be shared with as wide an audience as possible and that to do so well means drawing out the essence of the story.
And the same could be said about a journalist’s ‘reason to be’ too.
Thanks to Don for such an illuminating and fun event.