When to get in touch with your Press Officer
If you work with a University, you will almost definitely have a press office dedicated to getting University research into the news. Find out who they are and reach out to them. When a paper is accepted (but well before it’s gone to print) is a good time to make first contact, but if you’re working on something you think will have great potential media appeal in the future, you can reach out before then to let your press officer know about what you’re up to. They may want to send a University photographer or videographer into the field with you if they won’t have that option once the paper is accepted. Remember though, press officers are very busy people! UC Davis has six press officers in the Office of Strategic Communications for about 5,000 faculty and research staff and 4,500 graduate students. Some departments have their own dedicated communications staff who work collaboratively with the Office of Strategic Communications. For example, Chris Bowman, the Communications Director for the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.
What to expect when you first talk to your press officer
Because of this huge demand on press officers, you should think of your first contact with them as a chance to really highlight the importance of your work and why the general public will want to hear about it (your pitch!). It’s good to go to your press officer having practiced your pitch, but be ready for suggestions and ideas about how to hone your story even more. Most press officers have vast experience in journalism and have an appreciation for what makes a good science story. Your press officer may love your ideas and want to run with them, or may think that a different angle is the way to go. Go into any discussion with your press officer with an open mind.
Control of your story
By working with your press officer, you can have more control over the story that gets into the media. Your press officer will often construct a press release or other type of announcement for your research story. Read through any summaries or anything that they write carefully and immediately. If you see any errors in facts or figures, let them know ASAP. Press officers want to get things right as much as you do, but waiting until the last minute to bring up anything you think is incorrect or any statements you aren’t comfortable with is a great way to give your press officer an ulcer.
Benefits of working with a press officer
Working with your press officer usually means more media coverage. They have contacts within major media outlets, both locally and nationally/internationally. Your press officer’s word carries the weight of the University (or other organization, if you work for an NGO or other research org.), and they can often get through to journalists faster and more often than you could on your own. Your press officer can also:
- Help you negotiate tricky situations, for example when your paper has co-authors from multiple organizations.
- Help prepare you for interview questions and face-to-face time with the media.
- Get access to University resources such as photographers/videographers and graphics specialists.
- Deal with the complexities of journal embargoes.
What to expect once your story goes out
You can work with your press officer to control when your story is released (for a paper, this is usually around the time it goes to print or online). Make sure that you’re available to field calls from the media for the week surrounding this date! If you’re going to be in Antarctica conducting field work at that time, make sure there is someone else from your co-authors or lab group who can be available to answer media questions. Better yet, just be available yourself.
Downside of not working with your press officer
If you have a press officer- use them! Unless your press officer says it’s okay for you to do so, you really shouldn’t be putting out your own press releases (about what you do at the University). It makes the University and your press officer look bad if a journalist finds out about University research before they do- and you lose the fast-track benefits and extended reach that most press officers have with media contacts.