Much of the media and communications efforts of economists will be ‘supply-driven’, attempting to ‘sell’ your findings to potentially interested journalists. This extract from a guide to working with the media that I wrote for the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) back in 2000 focuses on what to do when you’re in demand.
Your press releases are beginning to have an impact: stories are appearing and you are starting to get more and more frequent calls from journalists. What do you do now? The first important thing is to recognise that dealing with the media will take up a lot of your time, probably more than you realised when you began your media campaign. The press feed on themselves in many ways so once your name is out there, you will be more and more in demand. Interest is likely to come in waves: long pauses where you are ignored followed by short periods where you are bombarded with telephone calls and requests for interviews.
Assuming you’re happy with that, you need to build and maintain your reputation as a reliable resource, always available to talk and not taking offence when journalists get it wrong (as they sometimes will). That means treating them with respect, always returning a call, never being resentful for the intrusion and, in circumstances where it really is impossible for you to talk or to make a broadcast appearance, to find a colleague who can.
Print journalists typically place fewer time demands on researchers than broadcast journalists. They tend to have clear deadlines, which fall within regular working hours. And for the most part, they’re happy to do the work themselves and will only need ten minutes or so of your time to get your angle on a topic.
TV and radio can be very different. Detailed advice on dealing with the broadcast media is covered elsewhere on this website. But there are a few key points that are worth bearing in mind if you want to develop your career as a media don or indeed to turn your institution into an essential media resource:
- When talking about your own research, follow the same principles as for a press release: convey the key findings first in an accessible way. Particularly for live interviews, decide in advance on the two key points you want to make and try to get them across in your first answer.
- Speak naturally and at the right length, and try to use good turns of phrases that are not just ‘soundbites’.
- Be prepared for the difficult questions. Try to think through in advance what you might be asked and plan good answers.
- When invited to discuss a news item, you must be willing to talk at short notice on any relevant issue. Not being prepared to do an early morning interview will probably end your media career before it begins.
- When discussing a news story, aim to add value to the conventional wisdom, taking the debate on a little bit. Social science will often provide a perspective missing from the public debate. The key is to make your contribution not too mundane but not too technical, not too obvious but not too complex.
Once the media are taking an interest, you will have overcome the frustration of your research being ignored. But you will inevitably face two further frustrations. One is that in a certain number of cases, material you have provided or interviews you have given will not be used because other new stories have taken precedence. The other is that something written about your research contains errors, oversimplifies or even distorts your findings.
With the former, it is never worth complaining: you simply have to recognise the nature of the news process. With the latter, it is rarely worth complaining though if you are seriously misrepresented, a careful factual correction or a quiet word with the erring journalist may be appropriate. In neither case will an emotional reaction be at all helpful to your future media career.