Guest post: Strategies for helping your research reach a wider audience

Note from Meghan:  This is a guest post from Richard B. Primack and Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie; Richard has written guest posts for us before, including one on using a professional editor. This guest post is on a topic that I get asked about regularly when I travel for seminar trips, so I suspect it will be of interest to readers. I’ve added some thoughts of my own throughout the post below.

 

As scientists, we love our research and want to share our findings far and wide. As ecologists and conservation biologists, we especially hope that our findings affect policy, management, or everyday stewardship. And funding agencies remind us that we must ensure our research has broader impacts that benefit society, beyond just publishing scientific papers. But how do we effectively communicate our research? Here, we share some tips about how researchers can communicate research to the media, and reach audiences beyond peer-reviewed journal readers. We use examples from a recent paper of ours published with co-authors.

Make your research exciting—identify your hook. In our recent paper, Phenological mismatch with trees reduces wildflower carbon budgets, published in Ecology Letters, we emphasized that we are building on the observations of Henry David Thoreau; Thoreau was the “hook” that we use to attract much of the interest in our research.

Make the message easy to understand—tell a story. We wrote a press release that told a story about our research and highlighted key points in non-technical language and without jargon. Even though Richard’s academic home of Boston University does not generally issue press releases about scientific papers, our summary helped reporters quickly understand our work, its significance, and potential angles that could interest readers or listeners.

(From Meghan: if you’re having a hard time finding your hook or story, there are some great resources. Randy Olsen’s And, But, Therefore structure is great, and laid out in detail in his book, Houston, We Have a Narrative. The Aurbach et al. “half life” activity (described here) is also a helpful way to find your message.)

Provide informative, high-quality photos. We take many photos to illustrate our research and the key results. Sometimes these photos are carefully staged to illustrate the research process or results. Reporters are more likely to write a story if excellent photos are available.

A man wearing a baseball cap is crouched down in a field. In one hand, he is holding a field notebook. The other hand is reaching out towards a plant with yellow flowers.

Having good photos, such as this carefully arranged shot of Primack working in the field, helps to create media interest.

(From Meghan: these are so important, and often people forget to take them! I agree that carefully staged photos are valuable. Getting videos is very helpful, too, including for reporters to use as “B roll”. I recently shared various short snippets with a reporter—I was glad to have them, but also wished I had more! Another example of how videos can be helpful comes from this recent story by some of my colleagues at Michigan, which went viral because a student on the trip, Maggie Grundler, thought to pull out her phone and capture a quick video of a very cool interaction.)

Reach out to the media and be responsive.  We emailed our press release and eye-catching photos to contacts in the media. One of them liked the story and wrote an article about our work for the Boston Globe. He was writing the article on tight deadline, so we promptly answered his numerous questions.

(From Meghan: A couple of things related to this: first, reporters are often working on much, much tighter deadlines than we are used to—they might need to file the story by the end of the day they contact you. So, you need to be quick about responding to them, but it also helps to give them as much lead time as possible. Second, reporters generally will not share their story with you ahead of time for you to review. It’s very different than working with a university press officer!)

One thing can lead to another. The Boston Globe writer pitched the story to National Public Radio, and he will interview us for a radio program in April.

(From Meghan: One thing can lead to another….or not, or maybe it does but with a big delay. One of the things I didn’t really appreciate when I first started doing more science communication is that you can spend a lot of time talking to a reporter and it can end up going nowhere. [example 1, example 2] It can be really frustrating! If anyone has advice on how to make this less likely, I’d love to hear it!)

Get with social media. Caitlin tweeted about the article, creating buzz in the twittersphere. We wrote a short summary of our paper for our lab blog—essentially a shorter, more conversational version of the press release—with links to a pdf of our article. Our lab blog has been viewed around 100,000 times in 6 years, so we estimate that this will be 500 views of this story, a nice complement to the Twitter buzz.

Publish on-line. To generate publicity within our Boston University community, we wrote an article for BU Research, using the press release as a starting point. This article further widened the audience who will hear about the research, with relatively little additional effort on our part.

Leverage institutional networks.  The other co-authors of our paper reached out to their universities and media contacts, sharing our press release. The paper received added coverage in institutional publications and websites of the University of Maine and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

(From Meghan: another reason this can be useful: one press officer might not be interested or might not have the time, but someone else’s might.)

Send out pdfs.  We emailed a pdf of our paper to 100 colleagues in our field, along with a very short email summarizing the key points of the article, again pulling from the same basic story in the press release and blog and Twitter posts.

Each paper and project are different, but hopefully this post has given you some ideas of things to try.

Other resources:

Compass – https://www.compassscicomm.org

The Op Ed Project – https://www.theopedproject.org/pitching

Cahill Jr, J. F., Lyons, D., & Karst, J. (2011). Finding the “pitch” in ecological writing. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America92(2), 196-205.

Merkle, B. G. (2018). Tips for Communicating Your Science with the Press: Approaching Journalists. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America99(4), 1-4.

42 thoughts on “Guest post: Strategies for helping your research reach a wider audience

  1. Nice post – thanks. I think these are great suggestions, and to some extent I follow them myself. That said, I do think it’s worth reflecting on the broader implications of joining the competitive race in the “attention economy”. Here’s a devil’s advocate point of view (i.e., I do see all the good reasons to self-promote (I do it myself), but those are already in the post at least implicitly, so I’ll present a different point of view.)

    Science journalists will find something to write about each day/week/month, and by self-promoting we’re basically saying “you should write about my study instead of someone else’s”, or equivalently, “the general public should read about my study instead of someone else’s”. Social media has turned much of private and public life into a performance already, not always for the betterment of society (I imagine we will agree). If everyone followed these suggestions, any individual researcher would be no further ahead in terms of reaching a broader audience, and we’ll then be encouraged to invest even more time in getting ahead in the attention economy. Does that cycle ever end? An analogy comes from politics: is promoting media coverage of our study basically like lobbying? Would we like politicians to seek out the best possible information with which to make decisions, or to be swayed by whoever presents the slickest lobbying argument? How much should companies or other interest groups invest in lobbying efforts (already a lot)? And so how much should scientists invest in self-promotion?

      • Hi Mark and Jeremy,

        Thanks for this perspective.

        This article is written for grad students, post-docs, and other early researchers who want to reach a wider audience. They are excited by their research, and want to tell others what they are doing. Hopefully, this post will give them ideas about how to accomplish this.

        Richard

  2. Great article. I believe that more science in the public eye/ear is always a good thing. Since we aren’t trained as scientists in media relations, more often than not important messages simply aren’t heard. The press are always looking for interesting stories; I disagree with the previous comment that this is a competition among ourselves– there is more room for all of us than we realize. There is no implicit, “Don’t listen to others” in promoting your own work. We can all win.

    I always tell my students that they must publish their research in the peer-reviewed literature for their hard work to mean anything, that is, for it to contribute to our collective understanding of the world. However, in conservation biology it is true that we must take it one step further. It is not enough to just hope that the right people (policy makers, managers, voters, etc.) learn about our findings so that positive change can happen; we must learn how to get our message out beyond the ivory tower.

    • “There is no implicit, “Don’t listen to others” in promoting your own work.”

      I’m going to disagree with this. Do you think that, by promoting your own work to the press, you are thereby increasing the total amount of science-related material the press publishes? Or the total readership of that science-related material? Maybe I’m wrong (wouldn’t be the first time!), but I highly doubt it.

      Yes, the press are always looking for interesting stories. And they’re always picking and choosing from among many options as to which stories to run. The amount of science-related material published in the press is not limited by lack of potential science stories being competently pitched to the press.

      Don’t misunderstand, I’m not suggesting that scientists shouldn’t try to get their work in front of the non-scientists who need to hear about it or would enjoy hearing about it. And if you want to do that, the advice in this post seems like good advice to me (though media relations isn’t something I know much about). But that doesn’t mitigate the collective action problem here.

      • To the extent attention for science is a zero-sum game (not entirely convinced it is, why couldn’t science compete for space with entertainment and sports?, but assuming it is), is it zero-sum across all science, or across ecology? If the former, are not all ecologists winners by ecology being efficient at gaining public attention? Only if press attention is zero-sum across ecology is your argument really applicable, and that seems like a big assumption to me.

    • Thanks, Anna. I can imagine that there’s some truth to both perspectives. That is, if there is a better collective effort to “get the word out” about what we’re doing in whatever scientific field, maybe we collectively “win” (e.g., the general public will read a bit more science and a bit less celebrity gossip). But it also seems highly unlikely that it’s any kind of 1:1 relationship; there’s no way twice the effort gets anywhere near twice the public exposure for research in a given field. Many of us are awfully close to information saturation, so competition for people’s attention seems inevitable. I would never say “don’t listen to others”, but if someone is listening to me at a given moment they are not listening to someone else (much as they might try).

      • True Mark! But I was just thinking….I would rather listen to someone who is more interesting then someone else. What makes something interesting to me, might not to another. Thus with a diversity of stories, pitches, ways of expressing our science and ideas, don’t we also better connect with the diversity of human minds on our planet?

    • Unfortunately, I can’t now find the old comment here from a science journalist, talking about his many filtering methods. Basically, he indicated he had bazillions of science-related press releases to sort through–WAY more than he could ever write about or than his outlets would ever publish. So he had many very quick and dirty filters to quickly eliminate many potential stories from consideration (I remember one of them was “don’t even consider writing about anything published in Science or Nature; it’s too likely to be oversold rubbish with serious flaws”; he emphasized that that particular filter was a good one for him as a journalist who needs to discard tons of press releases very fast, but wouldn’t necessarily be a good one for a working scientist).

      Which I think illustrates both the point of the post–to get your work into the press, you need to make journalists’ lives easy–and the point Mark Vellend and I made. Reporters are not hard up for possible science stories, they’re picking and choosing *which* science stories to write about, so more/better media outreach by individual scientists isn’t likely to increase the total number of science stories in the press.

  3. Thanks for this great guide! I recently attended a science in journalism workshop with Barbara Moran from WBUR and she echoed many of the same points, primarily being responsive to journalists, clearly articulating your findings, and taking high quality pictures

  4. I think the recommendations in this post are great and I hope that lots of people follow them. I tend to agree with Anna that society broadly would benefit if more scientists took actions like those described in the post because they help members of the press identify and communicate good science stories in ways that resonate with their audiences. I think a lot of great science stories are not told or are not told as well as they could because reporters didn’t hear about them, or they lacked compelling images, videos, or the right hooks, or the reporters didn’t get the interviews with the investigators when they needed them. I think that’s a huge shame. I certainly don’t think we are at the point where we have too many scientists communicating their work effectively–I’m not even sure what that would look like, but I think it would be a better problem to have.

    • It is true that certain scientists and organizations are effective at writing press releases and telling their stories. However, this post is for the large majority of researchers who don’t normally write press releases and reach out to the media. If more scientists communicated with the media, then we would have a greater diversity of research stories being presented to the public.

      I also think that there is a particular need for scientists in particular, and academics in general, to present their research to a local audience. In my case, I often write environmental/ecological articles for the Newton Tab, a newspaper distributed for free in our city of Newton, MA, with a population of 86,000 people.

  5. Pingback: Guest post: Strategies for helping your research reach a wider audience — Dynamic Ecology | Hacia una Cultura Científica

  6. Really interesting post, thanks Caitlin and Richard. The comments above have all focused on getting the story out to journalists and then the wider public. But I think it’s important to note your last point – “send out pdfs”. As scientists we are not just trying to get the attention of the media and the public and government, but also of other scientists. There’s too much being published to be able to keep track of all TOCs and important papers, so having a scientist email me their recent work is, personally, very valuable.

    • I’m just the opposite. I don’t want people emailing me pdfs of their papers in an effort to self-publicize their own work. With only one exception, every time in my life a stranger has emailed me a pdf, the stranger has been wrong to think I might be interested in the paper. I already have my own literature filtering methods that work for me. I don’t need anyone else trying to get my attention, in my experience that’s like the email equivalent of a pop-up ad on a website.

      • Wow, I seem to have hit a nerve! We’ll agree to differ Jeremy. My experience is the exact opposite, though in fact most of the time I receive pdfs it’s from people I know in the field.

        Just to note though, pre-internet, people did this all the time, posting reprints out to (potentially) interested colleagues. Often it was the only way of getting more obscure literature. These days a personal pdf may be the only way of getting pay-walled literature.

      • “My experience is the exact opposite, though in fact most of the time I receive pdfs it’s from people I know in the field.”

        That’s probably the entire explanation for the difference in our experiences. Your friends know that you want to read their papers.

        I’m (just) old enough to remember the pre-internet days. Nobody used to send me unasked-for paper reprints. Though perhaps that was because I was a grad student and then a postdoc and so not yet well-known. I did get, and send, postcards *requesting* paper reprints, which is very different. A “pull” rather than “push” model of literature-sharing.

      • The problem now, of course, is that the annual literature has grown so large that it’s possible to miss a lot of what is being published, so the “pull” is not so effective.

      • Can you elaborate a bit on why letting your friends send you their pdfs helps you filter the enormous literature? Is that just more convenient for you than you having to check their Google Scholar pages, set up Web of Knowledge filters for their names, or skim the TOCs of the journals they tend to publish in?

      • Because of the (very) wide range of journals that colleagues tend to publish in: botanical, zoological, conservation, molecular systematics, ecology, sustainability/social science, urban ecology. Perhaps because I have such broad interests. But pollination “ecology” alone cuts across so many subject areas, it’s impossible to keep track. Search “pollinat*” into WoS for 2018 and it returns 2,956 papers. Even pollinat* and ecolog* returns 1,573.

      • Ok, that makes sense.

        This illustrates the point of my old posts on how to filter the literature: different people do it in different ways, because they have different interests and goals. And maybe different numbers of friends, I suppose. 🙂

      • PS – I should say that I don’t get sent pdfs THAT often, maybe once a month at very most. It’s just that I don’t object to them.

  7. What a helpful article. I think scientists have a duty to articulate their findings to the general public regardless of whether this is motivated by “self promotion” or not. However, I often think that the newpapers which usually feature scientific articles are on many occassions already “preaching to the converted” and read by those already aware of environmental issues. How to reach an audience who might not be reading the news on a regualr basis or who do not seek out information about environmental issues? These are arguably the most important to reach.

    On another note, does anybody have any experience of working with televised nature programmes?! I’d love for my phenology work to feature on BBC Springwatch!!

    • “How to reach an audience who might not be reading the news on a regular basis or who do not seek out information about environmental issues?”

      Good question! To which one possible answer is “you don’t”. From what little I’ve read of the scicomm literature, “push” communication is difficult-to-impossible. It also arguably smacks a little of paternalism. I mean, do I really know better than other people what those other people should pay attention to? Curious to hear others’ thoughts on this.

      • I don’t think it’s paternalism. Not everyone likes to read the newspaper. There’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe we have a responsibility to present scientific findings in non-traditional ways or find imaginative formats that are of interest to a broad range of people. That’s not saying “I know best”. It’s finding ways to make evidence based science inspiring and accessible to all. It’s then up to them what they do with the evidence.

      • Why do you have a responsibility to present “scientific findings” to people who seemingly dont care? That does seem paternalistic. After all, humans have progressed from stone tools to quantum computing even though most of humanity doesn’t care about the daily grind of science.

  8. Thanks for this great resource! It is really helpful to have a list of strategies like this, especially for early career folks who might otherwise wait to be approached about publicizing our research. For me, the main takeaway is that we can be empowered to publicize our own work, and we have options for doing so.

    I think the question of whether we should be competing in the “attention economy” is interesting in theory, but might be discouraging for graduate students and postdocs that are already wary of self-promotion. Readers and reporters have agency, and are pretty good at filtering based on their interest level! So, rather than seeing these strategies as ways to say, “read about my study, not someone else’s” we could use them to say “here’s what I found, does it resonate with you?” Sometimes the answer will be no, and that has to be okay. But it seems like by practicing techniques like identifying the hook and storytelling, when our work does resonate with people it will spark a better conversation.

    • Thanks Amanda! I really love how you framed the goal of reaching a wider audience: “here’s what I found, does it resonate with you?” I also see these suggestions as good form for practicing scicom within the science community — identifying the hook and finding the narrative are so important for interesting, compelling posters and conference talks. I’m glad we came out of a lab where we were encouraged to develop these skills and given opportunities to practice them!

  9. Similar to radio and social media, I think podcasts are a great way to reach a wide audience, especially for the public who are interested in science but are not necessarily scientists. Science-related podcasts like Radiolab, Hidden Brain, and Ologies reach huge audiences and are extremely effective in communicating science in an approachable way.

  10. One final suggestion for outreach — get your figure twitter-famous through a minor tiff with with your editor? I’m not sure how this is going to play out, but it’s been a lot of fun to get so much attention around this little dissertation chapter in the final stages of peer review.

    Bad news friends, our paper’s handling editor gave us a hard no on the emoGG plot. RIP to my best figure ever. pic.twitter.com/hE1nNvkDWr— Caitlin MacKenzie PhD (@CaitlinInMaine) April 2, 2019

    https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

  11. Constant self-promotion is certainly off-putting (perhaps most of all to scientists) and exceedingly time/energy-consuming. Perhaps, though, the press is just like any other tool to connect with people – one to be used and misused depending on the rules of engagement. It seems that scientists currently suffer from a more widespread problem than rampant self-promotion: public distrust of/dislike of scientists is higher than it should be. To some degree, this is the fault of scientists who put little effort into communicating their work to people outside their immediate field.

    The unfortunate truth is that often, information alone doesn’t register with people, but putting it in a digestible (even engaging) format does (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds). So, the idea that whoever presents the most compelling story is getting the most recognition and coverage is not worth fearing: it’s already happening. Interacting with the press is just one path forward. Unfortunately, however, few scientists are truly skilled at interacting with the press. Perhaps a bit more effort by scientists to learn these skills might help turn the tide.

    • Nicely put. Compelling stories “sell” for sure. I would say that one needs to be ever-aware of the risk that the desire to tell a compelling story results in oversimplification to the point of being misleading. The line between “use” and “misuse” can be a fine one, and seen to be in different positions by different people (i.e., one person’s necessary and justified simplification is another’s misleading statement unsupported by evidence).

  12. Coincidentally, the following example of a scientific finding making its way into the press thanks to media outreach by scientists just came to my attention (link goes to the first tweet in a short thread, you need to click through to read the whole thread and then come back here):

    I think it’s quite a common sort of example. In particular in the fact that the wild speculation that the media ends up hyping originates not with the media, but in the press release from the scientist’s university (in which the scientist is quoted, and that the scientist may well have vetted).

    Obviously, there are far more ways for scientists to bring their work to the attention of different non-scientist audiences than just university press releases! But *one* way for scientists to bring their work to the attention of some non-scientists is university press releases. So, curious to hear from folks with more media outreach and scicomm experience than me: what, if anything, went wrong in this example? (Personally, I think something went wrong, but I’m open to disagreement on that!) If you think something went wrong, are there specific parties to blame? Or is this an illustration of a collective action problem or bad systemic incentives, in which individual parties are blameless? And depending on your answers to those first three questions, what if anything do you think could and should be done to improve matters?

    I raise this example because I think it’s a common “failure mode” of following the advice suggested in Richard and Caitlin’s (very good!) guest post. I don’t mean that the advice proffered in the post is bad (it’s not!). Rather, I mean that, *in those cases* where attempts to follow that advice go wrong or lead to bad outcomes, the linked example shows what those bad outcomes often look like. The bad outcomes arising from well-intentioned media outreach run to type, I think. Which suggests that they *might* be fixable. Just like how, if the mistakes my students make on exams run to type (as opposed to each mistake being a unique idiosyncratic one-off mistake), I can adjust my teaching to address the reasons for those mistakes.

    • It is true that the press often over-implies a story or gets its wrong. And that it is why it is important to write a press release that is both accurate and interesting. Scientists need to be able to explain their results clearly and simply, and stay on message and stay on message when interviewed.

      One topic area that it presently filled with dramatic scientific publications and media excitement and hype is insect decline. A recent article in the Economist does a good job of separating out the exaggerated claims from the actual evidence, and describes the practical consequences and needed actions.

      • Good example. Insect decline seems like a case where some of the exaggerated or unjustified claims originate with some of the scientists themselves, rather than with the press. Manu Saunders has a good post on this.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.