This blog in Dutch: Leidraad voor wetenschappers: wanneer is iets nieuws?
A colleague asked me some time ago if we could give our scientists some sort of guide on what is newsworthy, and when to contact their local communication department. Below is an attempt to provide such a guide, based on the selection process I implicitly follow when talking to a scientist about his/her research. I’ll follow the standard five W (and one H) questions of journalism: Who, What, Where, When, Why, (and How) questions. And there’s even a sixth W in there somewhere: Wow.
Sometimes the ‘Who’ can be newsworthy on its own: when someone important comes to visit, but also when our students (in my specific Delft case) are up to something new and exciting again – our students do have a name to uphold here -, a journalist will want to read about it. This is also the reason we really want that celebrity to be present at our happening.
It has to be clear if it is about a scientist, a team, students, a spin-off company – or celeb. Journalists are not interested in the specific school, department or whatever the scientist is from – something we have to explain time and time again, because this is top of mind to most people who want to get a press release out. ‘TU first’ is a philosophy we adhere to (admittedly harder to say this in this particular day and age…) but mentioning only TU Delft in our press releases benefits us as all, when people read about how those smart, inventive, creative students/researchers of TU Delft have come up with something typically ‘Delft’ again. And not researcher X from department Y of school Z of TU Delft.
What counts as news? Core question here. I’ve gone through our list of press releases, to see if there are categories to discern. I’ve come up with a whole list, but I think it’s nice to be as complete as possible. Comments are more than welcome of course!
Here goes, it’s news when:
- You have developed a new and/or improved invention, process, prototype, model or concept, with which we can go even higher, faster, better, deeper, smaller, bigger, cheaper, more efficient, more sustainable, safer than we’ve ever been/done before. By how much? Being specific is important here.
- You’ve gained new insight through research. ‘We now know more about / understand better why…’.
- You have gotten some spectacular results in field tests.
- You have won an important prize (i.e. Red Dot, Nobel or the Dutch Spinoza). That poster presentation prize is less suited for presenting to journalists – sorry – but can still be shared within the department or school.
- You’re about to get published in a major scientific journal (like Nature or Science). For this calibre journal, getting published usually is newsworthy enough on its own. Sometimes this means we just have to work a little bit harder explaining all that super complicated fundamental stuff you’ve done . But also, for the ‘lesser journals’: do give us a call, and we’ll figure out how to make this work. Make sure you do call us well in advance, and not on the day of publication or even afterwards: it’s no longer news then – again sorry – but that’s just how journalism works. The more time you give us to prepare, the better the press release and accompanying material can be.
- You are starting to investigate that is something interesting and / or societally relevant. Please note: it doesn’t always have to be research that’s been finished/published. The underlying question you’re about to tackle, or the promise for the future, can be enough to make things newsworthy.
- You are going to participate in a race or contest, especially for students.
- You are going to unveil something, like the above mentioned student project, a prototype, a new facility, instrument or even building.
- You are entering into an important collaboration with a big partner on something tangible. We’re not so keen on the signing of MoU’s however…
- You are organizing an interesting lecture, preferably on something current, and open to the general public. Even better if it’s broadcast online live – and can be viewed afterwards as well. Or if the speaker is famous, see the first bullet.
- You have an interesting / controversial opinion on something current. We’ll probably advise you to write an op-ed (and can help you with that as well), instead of sending out a press release, but we’d still very much like to know.
- Someone interesting gets appointed. We’d rather go all out on the inaugural address, because there’ll probably be more sciency content, but sometimes it can be strategically useful to share the appointment as well, including the important research question(s) you have of course.
- You are getting a large sum of (grant) money. We’ll also want to emphasize the science and relevance here of course.
- You are starting a new spin-off company – provided it is somehow and closely connected to our university. We love to help you get going with some extra media attention.
- And here’s the sixth W: it’s also (most likely) news, when you see something and think (or you can imagine other people thinking) ‘Wow’ (‘gosh’ is OK too). If you’re doing something funny, unexpected, and/or (for the incrowd) ‘typically Delft’, we’d probably like to know about it.
If what you’re doing somehow matches one of these bullets, please don’t hesitate to contact one of your colleagues in the communication department (local or central office).
The ‘where’ of your research could be newsworthy on its own as well. Fieldwork abroad, on the North pole, on a ship, in a desert, an aeroplane, in space, a unique set-up in the lab, in town, in a school, a museum, or any other exotic place you wouldn’t expect, just let us know – again, preferably in advance. If it’s really interesting, we could even give you our TU Delft Instagram account for a week.
If you can explain why this research/these results you are doing are important to the audience reading/listening/viewing, then you’ve probably got a topic which is newsworthy and which we’d like to know about.
As mentioned before, if something’s already happened, it is no longer news – barring disasters of course, but that’s outside of our scope right now.
Pleasepleaseplease call us well in advance when you think you might have something newsworthy coming up. It gives us time to prepare, and maybe even get some additional material made like infographics or animations.
The ‘when’ of things can be rather arbitrary. Take for instance a PhD defence (or a publication for that matter). The research has been done, conclusions have been drawn, all that’s left is the ceremony. But this still gives journalists enough of a news angle (or hook) to cover the topic. ‘There’s been an important new development. Says <fill in name> who will be defending her PhD on <fill in date>’.
A novel research method can also be newsworthy. If you’re digging in 5 kilometres of glass fibre cable to monitor temperature flux of the subsurface, you’ve certainly got my attention. Getting hundreds of volunteers into your lab to help you with your research into crowd behaviour at festivals, ditto, let us know. Again, if it’s really interesting, we could give you our TU Delft Instagram account for a week.
Increasing the odds
For media, any images, film, animations and/or infographics help make the topic more interesting, and usually also easier to understand. If you have any of these, you greatly increase your odds of ending up in the news. In an ideal world you’ll have started producing material like this during your field work, experiment or whatever (did I mention Instagram already?), because you usually can’t reproduce the experimental set-up afterwards just to get a shot in for the press release. Make sure you film and shoot photographs on location when you are doing all that exciting and visually attractive research, or better still, get us on board in time, so we can help you with that.
Working in the field of science communication for some time gives you some feeling of which topics will do well with journalists, and which probably won’t. And how to best write things down to increase the odds journalists will pick up on our news. But even then, you still get it wrong sometimes: sometimes things land even better than expected, and sometimes something you thought promising, will not do much at all. No guarantees here.
But still, if you want to develop a bit of that feeling: read the newspaper, listen to the news on the radio, or watch it on tv with in the back of your mind questions like: (how) would my research be covered by this medium, what would they ask me, what would I like to bring across?
Helping you out with questions like these, is what we science information officers at your university are there for, and, we can’t say this enough: we’d love to hear from you.