A long-time journalist for outlets like the BBC, the Sunday Telegraph and the Guardian, Fran Abrams is now the Joint CEO of the Education Media Centre (EMC). In this post, she shares her top tips on engaging with the media.
At the Education Media Centre, we often advise academics on how to communicate with the media, but we sometimes find that there is a communication gap between what academics want to say and what journalists want to hear. We like to think of ourselves as a communication service that can match up these two different groups of people.
Although I realize that speaking to journalists can be daunting, I encourage you to try to enjoy your experience – it can be great fun engaging with the media. If dealing with journalists is something new to you, or you’re looking for advice on how you can better work with the media, you may find the following tips useful.
Think about what it is that you want to share, why you want to share it, and what it is you want to achieve. You need to think about what your research says and where it will be useful.
Equally, you need to consider:
Most academics are connected to an institution, so it’s likely you’ll have access to people who work with the media regularly, such as a press office or communications officer. You should always talk to your media office, as they are there to help you, and they will know how best to communicate your research.
This is a classic misunderstanding that can happen between academics and journalists. You may have a paper that is great news for you and your field, but this won’t necessarily be great news for journalists. They are unlikely to be interested in big methodological breakthroughs in the field; they will pick up on the story that they want to run, which may lead to your message being communicated in a different way than you had intended.
Take initiative, research media outlets and try to match up your own interests with the interests of a specific journalist. Look for journalists that are interested in what you have to say in your area of expertise, and you’ll have more success.
Think about the journalist’s timescale before you make contact; the more notice you can give them, the better. Again, your press office can help with this. Deadlines are much shorter these days, so you may want to give them a few days’ notice, particularly for print. For longer term projects, the journalist may want to go out and talk to some real people that have experienced some of the issues your research tackles. For documentaries, journalists need a lot more time – don’t drop it on them at the last minute!
Although this sounds obvious, it is something some academics struggle with. The average reading age of most good quality broadsheet newspapers is around 11 years. Use very short words and short sentences to communicate your message, and keep it very simple, plain and direct. Journalists receive hundreds of messages a day, so don’t overwhelm them and lose them in the first paragraph.
Again, this sounds obvious, but don’t tell them something they already know. You want to surprise them, and this can be difficult. Journalists are going to be more drawn to something that, to them, looks new and different. It may be that, while it’s not surprising to you as an academic, it is intriguing to a journalist because it is not widely known to the public.
Try to match your time and theirs. Aim for a quiet news day when journalists are more likely to be receptive.
We are aware that some academics are not very confident in engaging with the media; if you’re unsure, take small steps. If you feel nervous, don’t accept an interview on live television straight away – get some media training and experience first. Your confidence will grow as you gain more experience of this.
If you do get a piece of news out there, the chances are they will contact you again if something new comes up in the field. This will help you to establish a relationship with them. So, if you have a good experience, say ‘thank you’, and this gives you the opportunity to mention other work you have coming up in the future. Journalists want new stories and contacts.