The ability to do a media interview really well is a key skill that will help scientists advance their public profile and communicate their work. This in turn raises the profile of your university. Most scientists benefit immensely from media skills training.
Scientists who shy away from media interviews often do so because they are scared or fearful of the potential outcomes of a media interview. They may be concerned about the reaction of their colleagues, or they may have been “scarred” by a negative experience of an earlier media interview that went wrong. Media skills training can equip them to take on media interviews confidently and successfully, thereby benefiting from reaching large public and policy audiences.
Media skills training helps scientists to prepare for different kinds and styles of interviews so that they can make the most of media opportunities, including difficult and possibly confrontational interviews. It helps them to understand how different media outlets work, what journalists need and how to prepare for an interview. Once scientists understand news values, they will recognise newsworthy developments in their own work and will be able to frame news stories appropriately for different news platforms and editorial spaces.
When reaching out to the media, scientists have to understand that it is not all about them and their science. Instead, they have to understand how journalists operate and what the media wants. This is the first step towards a better working relationship with journalists.” Heather Ndlovu, lecturer and research uptake manager at the National University of Science and Technology, Zimbabwe
Typically, a media skills training programme for scientists would consist of the following components:
Understanding the strategic value of science-media engagement (how media interaction can add value to science)
Understanding how the media work and what journalists need (including interacting with “real” journalists)
How to prepare (and stick to) key messages
Preparing for the interviews (and getting to know about the journalist and media platform)
Handling bad news stories and difficult interviews (including anticipating and preparing for negative responses and confrontational questions)
Packaging science for maximum media appeal – looking at the role of visuals, infographics, video, etc.
One or two case studies of science stories that achieved a high media profile
Evaluation and feedback
“As a communicator, I can put myself in the journalist’s shoes and ‘predict’ how journalists will respond to a particular press release. I usually prepare a “cheat sheet” for scientists to help them prepare for popular questions that journalists are likely to ask.” René van der Berg, research communicator at Stellenbosch University
Before and after the media training workshop
When inviting scientists to participate in such a media training event, ask them to prepare a short pitch where they try to “sell” a science news story based on their current research or a recently published research article. This will provide a useful basis for the message design and mock interview exercises.
A training session like this can take two to three hours if you work intensively with just one or two scientists in the lead up to a big media announcement. Alternatively, you can present it as a full day workshop accommodating a maximum of 20 researchers.
If you find it difficult to get researchers to sign up for such a workshop, it helps to get a senior person in the university (or in a specific department) to nominate and invite them.
Make sure you evaluate your training courses and get feedback from participating researchers on how they have benefited. This will be useful when you advertise your future courses.
Follow up with your participants within 4 – 6 weeks after the workshop to find out whether they have been able to try out their new media skills in practice, and encourage/support them to do so.
Understanding how the media work and what journalists need
Scientists and journalists live and work in different worlds.
Scientists focus on accuracy and detail. They are used to technical language, robust methodologies, lengthy peer review processes and slow advances in new knowledge. Journalists, on the other hand, work with breaking news, quick grabs, sound bites and controversies. They are used to constant time pressure and tight deadlines.
The most effective way for scientists to understand how the media work and what journalists need is to hear it directly from journalists. If at all possible, invite a “real” journalist to join you for at least part of the workshop. For a big workshop, you may want to invite more than one journalist, representing print, broadcast and online media outlets. Ask them to tell the scientists about a typical working day: how stories get selected; the role of the sub-editors, news editors and editors; time pressures, the competition for space, etc. Ask them about what makes the difference between science stories that get used versus those that are ignored. This is also a good opportunity for the scientists to ask questions and get to know journalists, as well as their challenges and constraints, a little better.
Preparing for the interview
For every interview, scientists should address the following (and it is your role as research communicator to guide them through this process during training):
Objective – Be clear about what you want to achieve by using the media or why you have agreed to do the interview.
Audience – Who do you want to reach with your messages? Always know who the media audience is before the interview starts – consume media to familiarise yourself with the media landscape.
Message – What do you want to get across to the audience? Consider your objective, what the audience might want to know (which generally shapes an interviewer’s questions) and what the audience (or interviewer) might get wrong unless you stress the correct information. Get your main points across first.
Written – Always give journalists something in writing before the interview – offer to email or fax it to them. The more background they have, the better informed they will be to ask questions.
Preparation – Think about money, statistics and any background information that might be useful in your interview. For example, how much money could be saved as a result of this research; how many people could benefit; what is the local relevance? Prepare for the interview by thinking of simple everyday explanations and/or examples and by focusing on the main points of your message. Case studies and anecdotes are powerful.
Rehearsal – Practice with someone who can play the role of the journalist—try your family or friends. (Colleagues know too much.)
Remind researchers that public communication is not about “dumbing down” science, but rather about “clearing up” complex information.
Most research stories are ‘good news’ stories. When a journalist is looking for an expert on a specific topic, they are not likely to be overly critical. However, it is perfectly acceptable for journalists (it is their job) to ask some probing questions, for example questions about who funded the research and how much money was spent on a project.
While scientists should not purposefully avoid answering legitimate questions, it is equally important for them to understand that they can – and should – remain in control of the interview. This is key to achieving a positive outcome.
Here are some tips that you can pass on to scientists to help them take control of any media interview.
As an expert in your field, you have a much deeper understanding of the issues relevant to the interview and what people need to know about it. Even when a journalist is well prepared for an interview, they may not be able to ask the most pertinent questions. You are not “at the mercy” of the questions the journalist asks. Once you have prepared your key messages, you can take any question and turn it around to become an opportunity to provide the information that you have prepared. This should not be used as a technique to avoid answering good or difficult questions. It is a tool to turn the interview around and point it in the right direction, when necessary. It also helps to make sure that the most relevant and important answers are provided in the limited time available.
Here are some phrases that you can use as a “bridge” when responding to a question that is not directly relevant to your key messages (this is especially important in live interviews on radio and television):
‘The really exciting thing about our work is …’
‘That is a good question, but it is even more important to know that …”
‘Let me answer your question by simply pointing out that in the last … months we have…’
‘I think that your question is best directed to … but what I can say is …’
‘Let’s look at that issue from another viewpoint …’
‘Well, that’s an interesting point, but the key thing I want to say is …’
Stick to your two or three key messages (which may mean turning questions around as explained above).
Back up key points with examples or colourful analogies.
Keep your answers short and interesting.
Be enthusiastic and lively.
In pre-recorded interviews, the audience would rarely hear the question when it is played. Therefore, avoid yes/no answers and pronouns, and give an answer that is complete and can stand alone.
Prepare and use a few strong “sound bites” that journalists can edit and use without removing context.
Never say ‘no comment’ if you don’t want to answer a question. Rather use phrases such as:
‘It’s too early to answer that question …’
‘I can’t talk about … because I’m not the person working on it …’ or ‘… because it’s commercial in confidence …’, or ‘… because the full results aren’t in yet …’. Then add, ’but what I can say is …’ and return to the main message you have prepared.
Handling bad news stories and difficult interviews
When a scientist or research done at your university comes under fire for any reason, it is important to respond pro-actively, quickly and credibly. Research communicators can play a valuable role in containing damage and setting the record straight.
Depending on the nature and severity of the situation, you may need to work with the university management to convene the relevant scientists for a joint planning session. Use this opportunity to agree on key messages and anticipate the questions that may come from the media. Also agree on what NOT to say.
Draft and issue a media release and create opportunities for the media to interview the relevant managers and/or scientists.
Remind scientists that they have to be careful about what they say, and how they say it. They should not become defensive and they must never lose their temper in a media interview. Advise them to stick to the key messages – politely, pleasantly, patiently and firmly.
Packaging science for maximum media appeal
A good science story sells even better if it comes with excellent visuals, broadcast-quality video clips and easy-to-understand infographics. It is important to make these “extras” easily available to journalists in a media-friendly format. Visuals for print media need to be high-quality and high-resolution. For a media interview, scientists could take props that will add visual interest for the camera. Think of fossils, models, maps, prototypes – anything that can illustrate your story and bring your ideas to life.
Here are some training exercises to include in your media skills workshops.
Ice-breaker At the beginning of the workshop get scientists to work in pairs. Try to put them with people from other disciplines (or at least someone they don’t know well). Each person gets one minute to explain what his/her research is about to the other one. After one minute, they swop roles. Be very strict about the timing. After two minutes, each person should then have an idea of what the other one is working on. Each participant must then introduce their “partner” and tell the rest of the group what he/she is working on and what is most interesting or significant about their research topic.
Journalists are people too
Many research scientists have had little or no contact with working journalists. Invite “real” journalists to participate in your workshop and ask them to tell the researchers about their typical working day. Let them explain how competitive the media environment has become and talk about the typical pressures and challenges they face when reporting on research. This helps scientists to understand journalists better and will break down some of the barriers between these professions.
The dragon’s den
Give each scientist just one minute to explain what they do and why it is important to a panel of three journalists. Stop the scientist after one minute and ask the panel to respond. Did they understand it? Did they think the issue was important? Would they be interested to know more and possibly do a story about it? Why, or why not? (You could also get, for example, five scientists to present and ask the journalist to pick the story with the most media appeal, and explain why they would prefer that story.)
Interview preparation Create a scenario of a specific interview that a scientist will participate in. For example, a journalist from a fast-paced morning show on a talk radio station is going to call him/her at 07:00 the next morning to talk about a new development in his/her research. The interview will be maximum three minutes long.
Now, give each scientist a piece of paper with the following questions (and space to fill in the answers)
How much do you know about the specific radio host, as well as the radio show? How will you find out more?
Who is your audience during this interview and what do you know about them? (For example, on a morning radio show, they are likely to be listening to this interview while driving.)
What are the three most important things that you would like the audience to remember after listening to this interview?
Putting yourself in the shoes of your audience, what do you think they would really like to know about this topic?
Is there room for misunderstanding, or something that you should emphasise to avoid confusing the audience?
Taking into account your answers to the above questions, what are the three central points of your message?
Lights, camera, action! The mock interview An opportunity to practice interview skills with a real journalist is probably the most effective way of helping scientists to experience the challenges and time constraints of a media interview. If you invite journalists to assist you with conducting these mock interviews, you should make it clear to all participants that this is a “safe practice session” – i.e. the journalist should not use information from the interview unless the scientist agrees afterwards. Give each scientist an opportunity to be interviewed by a television or radio journalist (in another room). These interviews must not be longer than three to four minutes. Schedule the interviews during a workshop break. Record the interviews, preferably on video. Play back the recorded interviews to the group. (You may need help with the time keeping, video recordings and playback.). Give the group (the rest of your participants) an opportunity to comment on what they found interesting, but also to comment constructively on what aspects of the interview did not work well. Then ask the scientist and journalist to comment on their experience of the interview. Check with the scientists whether they were able to get their three core messages across. Ask the journalists what advice they can give to make the interview more compelling. Keep the feedback constructive and encouraging.
Invite media friendly scientists to share their experiences One of the most powerful ways of persuading scientists about the value and impact of public communication is to hear it from their peers. Therefore, a scientist who is regularly interviewed by the media, could be a value-adding guest speaker at your workshop. Invite him/her to join your workshop for one hour (possibly the hour before the lunch break) to share their experiences of media interviews with your guests. You can present this in the form of an interview where you ask questions, and also give your participants an opportunity to ask questions. This will make it more interactive and also means that your guest speaker does not have to prepare a formal talk. Ask your guest scientist how the media interactions came about (proactive or reactive) and what the outcomes were. Ask them to share tips based on their experience of what worked well, or not.
“What I’m trying to do is help scientists speak in their own voices so that their own human qualities get communicated along with the science.” Alan Alda, actor and science communication lecturer at Stony Brook University, USA
Sample documents for future workshop presenters/trainers:
Online resources (some with short video lectures or examples) that can help scientists to work more successfully with journalists
A full chapter from Nancy Baron’s book “Escape from the Ivory Tower” is available free online. This chapter focuses on helping scientists to deliver a clear message. The “message box” (mentioned in this chapter) is another useful tool that scientists can use to distill their key messages for different audiences.
Science Media Savvy: Online media training resource for traditional and print media. Explore the resources, especially the sample video interviews for print, radio and television
Points to think about
Getting researchers to take time away from their labs or offices and attend a research communication workshop can be a challenge. You will need to convince them – beforehand – that this will be worth their while. In order to do this, you will need a very well-written invitation (or advertisement) for your workshop. They may also want to see the detailed programme for the day before they agree to participate in the training.
Ask researchers who attend your training communication workshops to write a short note on how and why they found it useful. This will be valuable to use when marketing future workshops.
If you are starting a new series of research communication workshops at your university, you may need to join forces with directors of research units or heads of department to help you to encourage (or even nominate) researchers to attend.
It is important to include ‘working’ journalists from your region to help present the workshop. Ask them to tell the researchers about their typical working day (including their own challenges and constraints) and get them to conduct the mock interviews and help with practical feedback sessions.
“An important part of the preparation phase is knowing who the journalist is, what s/he is interested in, how au fait they are with the topic, if they have written on the research before, what their view is on the research and what the focus of your interview will be.” Shirona Patel, communication manager at the University of the Witwatersrand
“Professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks – we need you!” Nicholas Kristof
“We should train all academic to master the principles of research communication, but particularly doctoral students, newly recruited researchers and research officers. This training could be included as a seminar in the PhD curriculum.” Dr Agnes Ngale Lyonga, research administrator at the University of Buea, Cameroon