3H. Getting media attention for research – the press release
Most journalists receive hundreds of press releases each day. They are under no obligation to use any materials that you send to them. Your challenge is to write an irresistible press release that journalists will not delete after one glance. And, it’s worth remembering that well-crafted releases that cater to a general audience do get used more often.
Writing a top-notch media release is not easy and is best done by a research communicator with a thorough understanding of the media, and a good working relationship with the scientists whose work is featured in the press release.
If writing and distributing research news press releases is part of your job, you are faced with two key challenges:
You must be up to date on the leading researchers and research projects within your university so that you can identify newsworthy developments and media opportunities. This includes building trust relationships with the scientists so that they will inform you of newsworthy developments or upcoming research papers.
You need to establish and nurture relationships with key journalists and to update and expand your media contact list continuously.
In his “Handbook for Science Public Information Officers1”, Matt Shipman advises research communicators to meet with researchers and ask them lots of questions when you are working on a press release, for example: What questions were you trying to answer with this research? Why? What was your methodology? What were the key findings? What new questions did this research raise? If you don’t understand the answer, keep on asking until you do. Explain to the researcher that you really want to get the facts correct and that you need their help to do this.
When is something news?
Relevant quality content matters. A good press release starts with a newsworthy story. The fact that your organisation will be hosting a science conference or meeting is not news. You can invite journalists to attend and report on such a meeting, in which case you issue a media invitation (not a press release). It may, however, be newsworthy if there is going to be a particularly prominent speaker at an upcoming event. It’s best to treat a press release as a purposeful document with a single goal: to elicit a call back from a journalist wanting to know more.
Answer the following questions to determine whether your story is newsworthy:
What is new and significant about it?
Why should people care?
How many people are affected?
Is it controversial?
Can it be linked to an issue that is currently making headlines or that many people are talking about?
Is it unusual, fascinating, weird, quirky or perhaps amusing?
Does it have a strong human interest element?
Is it particularly relevant or interesting to local people?
If you cannot answer “yes” to at least some of these questions, it is probably not worth bothering journalists with this story – you’ll be wasting your time and also theirs.
Press release style
Press releases are written for the media (journalists) and not to please your research director or to impress your peers. It must therefore be designed according to the rules of the media.
Media releases are written in the inverted pyramid style—the most important parts come first, followed by supporting information in descending order of importance. This point is important enough to repeat: a media release does not start with background, it starts with the “so what” and the main message, and background follows. In other words, it is the opposite of traditional academic writing.
The headline needs to be catchy. Think of it as a red flag for waving down a train. Begin with an attention-grabbing ‘lead’ sentence that also covers the basic message.
The entire release should be bright, direct and simple, but especially so in your first sentence. Bring the facts to life with relevant analogies and metaphors. Use strong quotes to liven up the story. This may require a joint brainstorming session with the relevant scientists and several re-writes.
While you should package and frame your science news release for maximum media appeal, you should never make yourself guilty of exaggeration or hype.
Press release content and layout
The layout of the press release must be easy to read with a bold headline, clear readable font, large enough interline spacing, and logical formatting.
Spend time crafting the headline – it must have impact and carry the most important message of the release. Then hit hard with your news angle in the first paragraph – the journalist must understand immediately what the news is – what has happened and why it matters.
It must be immediately clear who issued it (to give credibility to the press release). That means that you will have a logo/name of the organisation at the top!
Journalists are trained to cover the six basic questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. You should answer all these questions in the first few sentences of your press release.
Who said it? Who is this about? Who will this affect?
What happened? What does this mean for people? What is so important? This paragraph could contain a quote from your spokesperson.
Where did it happen? Where will this be applicable?
When will it happen? When did it happen? When will it be available?
Why is this so important? Why is this research being done?
How was the research done? Is there anything unusual/quirky about this? And how does this make you feel?
Make it easy to find the contact details of the press officer who wrote it (you in this case), as well as the contact details of the experts that can be contacted for follow-up interviews.
Check whether other institutions or researchers are involved – especially if the story is about a scientific paper. Leaving key people out of the story can have dire consequences. Also, collaborating with other institutions may give you extra platforms for exposure.
Include the caption(s) and credit(s) (name of the photographer) for photos at the bottom of your press release (clearly linked to the filename of the photos), but add the photos as separate .JPG files (do not include them in the Word document). Save the photos with descriptive file names, so that it will be clear to the journalist which photo belongs with which caption.
Keep the length of the press release to 500-700 words.
A checklist of press release essentials
Name/logo/identity of organisation at the top
Embargo date and time; including the time zone
Catchy title that explains the main point of the story
First sentence that encapsulates the story
First paragraph to explain the story and give the context
Key questions to be answered: What? Why? Who? How? When? Where?
One or more strong quotes from the relevant experts to add “colour” and “voice”
Details of relevant collaborators, funders, etc. and comment from another organisation where appropriate
Contact details: Provide several options for contacting the experts mentioned in the press release, including out-of-hours contacts
Information on where to download good, high-resolution photos, infographics or illustrations that complement the press release
You may also want to include the following:
Notes for editors: This is extra background information that you add at the bottom of the release. It usually contains extra information about the research leaders and the organisations involved in the research.
Boilerplate: A short paragraph about your organisation
Journal reference for the paper, including link to an online preview copy, where appropriate.
“One of the first rules of science communication is that there is no such thing as a general audience. This is also true for the audience(s) you are trying to reach with your press release. Some will be more interested in a financial angle, others want to find out about the human impacts. The community newspapers wants a local angle. Therefore, if at all possible, write more than one version of the same press release, and ‘frame’ it to fit the interests of specific journalists or media outlets.” René van der Berg, research communicator at Stellenbosch University
“Researchers often collaborate with peers from around the world. Consequently, you may have to collaborate with communicators at other research organisations on a joint press release. When working with a global release, it is recommended that all the parties contribute materials to a shared microsite or web page that can serve as a repository for the media kit which could include the media release, fact sheets, biographies, institutional information, the journal paper (if applicable), relevant links, high resolution photographs, images, infographics, captions, podcasts and video clips. It means printing less paper, increasing access and minimising the chance for journalists to get it wrong.” Shirona Patel, communication manager at the University of the Witwatersrand
Use an embargo when you do not want information to be released before a specific date, but want journalists to be able to prepare their stories in advance. This may be especially useful with complex stories involving many role players. In the case of a news release on a soon-to-be-published article, the scientific journal may set an embargo. State the embargo date and time clearly in bold at the top of your release, including the full time, date and time zone. Some journalists do not like embargoed releases, as they feel that there is no scoop in it for them if everyone uses the same information on the same day. Others don’t take press releases seriously unless they are embargoed, arguing that the words “for immediate release” at the top of a press release can be interpreted as “old news”.
Several science magazines publish press releases about upcoming research papers, and science journalists typically subscribe to these media services. A science communicator should be aware of that and avoid selling the same story twice. That is why it is important to make contact with the relevant journal and (possibly) collaborate with them on a press release.
It can be a difficult decision to choose between issuing a story as a general press release to all your media contacts or giving it exclusively to a particular journalist or media outlet. Sometimes getting your story into a specific newspaper or on a main TV news bulletin can be more important that achieving less prominent, but more widespread, coverage. And, journalists may be more interested to pursue a story if they know that no one else will scoop them.
As a general rule of thumb, you must make this decision based on the nature of the story. If the story is of broad, general interest and/or about something urgent (for example something about food safety), it is probably better to send it out broadly and openly. But, if the story has a very specific angle and is not time-dependent, for example a profile on an exceptional researcher, you could opt to give it to a specific journalist or outlet. Before deciding which journalist to contact, think carefully about whether this story is likely to be relevant and interesting to him/her (and the audience of this specific media outlet). When you offer a story exclusively to a single journalist, you should mention this and may ask them to let you know within a reasonable time (2 – 3 days) whether they are going to use it or not, so that you can offer it to someone else.
Sending out your press release
Here are a few points to keep in mind when you send out a general press release.
Make sure that you have approval to send out the press release. This includes the approval of the management of your institution or any other institution involved, funders and the researchers themselves.
Put the press release in the body of your email, not as an attachment. Put your catchy heading in the subject line.
Email the journalists on your media contact list individually.
Use science news services such as EurekAlert!, AlphaGalileo or PR Newswire to reach large media audiences around the world. If your institution does not have a permanent subscription to these organisations, you can also pay per posting.
Time your press release well. Send it out early in the day or early in the week so that journalists have time to deal with it. Avoid sending out your press release when other important news (such as a budget speech or an important sporting event) is likely to get priority.
Some media release service, such as Meltwater, allow you to track what is happening with your media release. Is it read or just opened? It measures the time spent on your mail before the recipient closed it. It gives you a whole set of valuable analyses. This could help you determine how to time your media release and who to send it to in future.
Social media channels have opened up many new opportunities to attract attention for your press release. In addition to distributing press releases by email, you can tweet the link to key science writers, and post it on relevant pages and groups on Facebook.
“A complete media pack – that should be on CDs and flash drives – must include quality and creative images in high resolution and broadcast-quality soundbites and video clips. None of these are optional. It saves a huge amount of time later when you need to provide material for radio and television. And, it really helps if you are able to use a photographer with experience of news photography to take your science news photos.” René van der Berg, science communicator at Stellenbosch University
Working with research journals
When one of the researchers at your organisation is going to get his/her paper published in a top research journal it is an ideal opportunity for you to get media attention for this research. You have to work with the researchers (and the research office) inside your university to make sure that they inform you (in good time!) when they receive confirmation that an article is going to be published. With two to three weeks’ notice before the publication date, you have time to craft a good press release and issue it under embargo. You should also contact the media officer at the relevant journal and ask whether they are planning to issue a press release about the upcoming paper. Provide them with any supporting information (such as short biographies, quotes, visuals, possible interviewees) that they may need or can use to showcase your institution.
1 Shipman, WM. 2015. Handbook for science public information officers. The University of Chicago Press.
How visible is the research news from your institution? How easy would it be for a journalist (or member of the public) to find the latest announcements about research findings from your university?
Are your research press releases easy to understand?
How well do your press releases score on the 10-point checklist provided here?
How do your press releases compare with the way other organisations (in your region or further afield) communicate research? How do they differ from press releases issued by top universities in your country, continent or even some of the world-leading research universities? (Look for examples on international press release services such as AlphaGalileo and EurekAlert?) Are there significant differences? Are these differences functional? For example press releases from your university may be written in a specific style for a reason. Is there something that you could do differently (or better) based on what you observe?
“Make sure all researchers mentioned in your press release have a copy of the final version and, most importantly, make sure they will be available for media interviews. You do NOT want to issue a media release, and then the researchers are not available to speak to the media!” Wiida Basson, media liaison officer at the Faculty of Natural Sciences, Stellenbosch University
“Due to the high trustworthiness of universities and research institutions, it is tempting for the media to copy and paste press releases from these sources. This trend should not lead to exaggeration or negligence in press offices. Quite the contrary, science communicators must commit themselves to Codes of Ethics from public relations associations.” Dr Susanne Benner, Head of Communications, Max Planck Institute für Chemistry, Germany