Friday, January 25, 2013

A Slightly Curmudgeonly Take on the Press Release



[P.Edmonds comment: It's a pleasure to welcome Nadia Drake for a guest blog post. She provides episode two of our blog mini-series about improving science press releases, leading up to our ScienceOnline2013 session next week. Episode one, titled "Science Press Releases: Good, Bad or Zombies?appeared last week. Over to Nadia...]

Q: Press Releases: What Do Journalists Want?

A: <fantasy> An exclusive, you-get-first-dibs press release that points toward a story that just can’t be ignored…about newly discovered robot laser sharks in space.

With video.

I realize I’m asking for a lot here. But in the absence of video (let’s be realistic, how many telescopes shoot such a thing?), I’d settle for a high-res artist’s conception of celestial Selachimorphs. And even though it might not be necessary, a little bit of background to put the discovery in context.

“Color me stupid, did you see that thing?!” asked the stunned graduate student whose dissertation just wrote itself.

On the off-chance that the laser-wielding astrosharks stayed a secret until formally described in a publication, I’d love a copy of the study. Or at least a link to a site where one is available. And some contact information for relevant astromarinebiologists, as well as the appropriate press contact.

Then, 
End.
#####

</fantasy>

The continuing search for robot laser sharks. Credit: Evil Cheese Scientist/Flickr

Really, journalists just want press releases that make our jobs easier. Sounds simple, but it’s not. We fill different roles at publications looking for different types of stories – it’s nearly impossible for press releases to be one-size-fits-all. Writing a release that will simultaneously work for a) a website that re-runs releases verbatim, b) a publication that hesitates to even re-run quotes, and c) the middle ground? Probably can’t be done efficiently.

As a result, I’m more than curious to peer behind the scenes as Peter describes how the press release process works (P.E.: episode three of our series, coming soon).

Until then, I can share what I like to see in a press release.

First, I always appreciate knowing right up top what the news is – preferably in the subject line of an email. If it’s about a paper, please tell me where and when a study appeared, and link to it.

[I realize this might be a me-thing, but I won’t write about a study unless I’ve had a chance to read it. Even if I’m just writing a brief.]

Instead of padding the text, consider using footnotes to provide additional background information, reference previous papers, or define terms (the European Southern Observatory does this really well).

Researcher contact info – preferably several – is key, though I’d be surprised if that detail is often omitted.

And… art. Never underestimate the selling power of a great visual. Scrambling around looking for photos or video makes me crabby – and sometimes, a sweet visual will earn at least a newsbrief treatment, if not more.

Things not to do?

Leave mistakes uncorrected. One of the questions Peter and I are considering is how best to correct errors after a release has gone out. It’s sometimes possible to find out which reporters relied on which press release by tracing the mistakes that appear in stories (SMH). I’ve very curious to find out during Karl Leif Bates and Charles Choi’s session how often errors creep into releases, and why …

Also, promoting a study or event that’s past its expiration date is disappointing (Great study, great pic – wait, it was published in August? Dang).

I’m undecided on a few points, but the one that nags at me the most is the issue of whether a release should suggest outside commenters. Reporter-on-a-deadline Nads says, “Yeah, good idea. Sweet!” Control freak reporter says, “No way. Make us actually do some reporting and I want to find my own people. Because stubborn.” (Though ultimately, even if an outside commenter is suggested, it’s still up to me to decide what to do with them.)

Things I don’t care as much about as other people do: Hyping (though, as Peter mentioned, there are some egregious and unacceptable instances of this: arsenic life, super-intelligent space dinosaurs...) I know this might score me some negative points, but journalists: Isn’t part of our job figuring out what’s newsworthy, and what’s over-hyped? There are checks and balances at work here. Send me enough crap and it’ll go straight to the can.

Lastly, you know what totally scores points? Finding out which areas I cover and sending relevant stuff before I ask. Thanks, press officers who are paying attention!

Here are some examples of the good and the bad. Agree? Disagree? Come talk about it during our session at Science Online!

Good: Even Brown Dwarfs May Grow Rocky Planets, from ESO. [News up top, art, just enough background, footnotes, great contact info, *link to paper*]

Asteroid’s Troughs Suggest Stunted Planet, from AGU. [This one has everything – links, news, images -- even a slightly dissenting outside comment!]

Most things by JPL’s DC Agle. For example, this release: NASA Says Comet Elenin Gone and Should be Forgotten. [Features interplanetary bogeymen and Monty Python. I always, always, always appreciate good writing!]



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