3B. Finding research stories on a university campus
Where do research communicators find research (and research news) stories on a typical university campus? Here are some ideas.
Follow the money
Keep an eye on any new research or equipment grants that researchers at your university receive. (The research office at your university should have that information.) Funders will have a good reason for supporting a specific project or piece of equipment. The fact that your university has received a significant sum of money to do certain work, can be newsworthy in itself. Find out as much as you can about the project, the researchers involved and the future expectations. Get quotes from the research leaders about the significance of the grant. Remember to mention the amount of money allocated (and for how many years), and recognise the funders and collaborators.
The research office at your university should also be able to tell you which new research projects are being launched. This could be big news, especially if the project has partners in other countries. Focus your story on the “why” and “so what” questions related to this project.
Profile the champions
Countries and institutions have different ways of recognising top researchers. Some have rating systems, while others have prizes. For example, South Africa’s National Research Foundation has an evaluation and rating system for researchers and it is always big news when a researcher achieves an “A-rating”. There is also an annual awards event organised by the country’s National Science and Technology Forum where scientists compete in specific categories for special awards (we call it “South Africa’s Science Oscars”!)
When researchers achieve this kind of recognition, it is an ideal time to write a profile about them and arrange radio (and possibly television) interviews. Media outlets in the researcher’s home town may be particularly interested to feature them as inspiring role models that grew up in their region.
Respond to news of the day
Events of the day provide an ideal hook to focus the attention on expertise at your university. The trick is to respond immediately when such an opportunity presents itself. For example, when the news breaks that a local person won a huge amount of money at a gambling game, the media will love an interview with a mathematician or statistician able to explain the odds of such a win. You can also interview a researcher from the field of psychology to give reasons why people gamble and comment on the social problems associated with gambling. An economist may be able to analyse the total amounts that people spend on gambling in your country and/or worldwide.
Bad news, and anything involving celebrities, also provide communication hooks. For example, if a famous sport star from your country is injured, you can use that opportunity to offer comment from a sport science researcher on the injury and the likely prognosis.
Local media will also be interested in an expert’s comment in big international events, developments and controversies.
Look for special stories on your graduation programme
Work with your the postgraduate office at your university to scroll through the research topics of students who are about to receive, for example, their doctoral degrees (do this several weeks before the event!). This could be a treasure chest of interesting (and human interest) stories that could be presented to specific media outlets.
You could invite the media to graduation events, but it is unlikely that many of them will attend (except in very special cases). However, try to highlight the interesting cases to them and arrange photo opportunities with those graduates.
Hook onto commemorative days/weeks/years
There is a long list of days, weeks and years which the United Nations General Assembly and other international organisations have established to focus public attention on specific topics. You can use these as hooks to highlight relevant work done at your university. Prepare and offer stories at least a month in advance.
You don’t always need to offer a complete press release or story. Journalists may also appreciate it if you simply provide them with contact details of researchers who work on topics that are relevant (especially if you can confirm that the researcher is available and willing to be contacted for an interview or comment).
Examples of special dates (for 2016) include:
2 February is World Wetlands Day
21 March is International Day of the Forests
24 March is World Tuberculosis Day
7 April is World Health Day
25 April is World Malaria Day
22 May is the International Day for Biological Diversity
31 May is World No-Tobacco Day
8 June is World Oceans Day
20 June is World Refugee Day
11 July is World Population Day
9 August is International Day of the World’s Indigenous People
12 August is World Youth Day
8 September is World Literacy Day
4 to 10 October is World Space Week
14 November is World Diabetes Day
16 October is World Food Day
1 December is International AIDS Day
10 December is Human Rights Day
The United Nations has declared 2016 as the “International Year of Pulses” and 2017 as “International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development”. Find out more.
Your country may also have its own national commemorative days or events. For example, in South Africa “National Women’s Day” – 9 August and a public holiday – provides a platform to profile women as leaders in science.
Ask to go along on a field trip
Accompanying scientists during research field trips provides you – and any journalists who go along – with an excellent and memorable opportunity to get to know a group of researchers and their work. During such a trip you are likely to have many hours – possibly while traveling – to ask questions. Away from the time pressures at work, the scientists will be more open and relaxed when answering. This allows you to get to know the person behind the science and get first-hand experience of the methods that the researchers use and the problems that they must overcome in their work. Show (and tell them) that you are interested and willing to help (even if it means getting your hands dirty by helping to dig and collect soil samples!).
Don’t hide in your office
Find out who organises public talks, debates or inaugural lectures within each faculty of your university and make friends with them (i.e. – make sure you are on their invitation lists!). Attend and stay behind for networking. Use these opportunities to get to know the research leaders on your campus and their research interests.
When you offer a research communication workshop (for researchers or other communicators) this is also an excellent opportunity to get new ideas and discover new communication tools yourself. Ask participants to share their tips and challenges in terms of finding science stories, and see whether you are able to generate solutions to help overcome some of the barriers. This may include, for example, an official request to the research support office that communicators need to be informed of new research funding awards as soon as the information becomes available.
“I may not have time to visit all the researchers at the university where I work, but I speak to them at every possible opportunity. I have picked up amazingly newsworthy stories from speaking to scientists in the elevator or cafeteria.” Shirona Patel, communication manager at The University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
“The annual Nairobi Innovation Week is an opportune time to engage with researchers about wider dissemination of their work. Documenting case studies about how effective communication has led to direct benefits is a powerful way of getting other researchers to buy into the value of public communication and engagement.” Esther Kemunto Obachi, librarian at the University of Nairobi, Kenya