10 Tips for Scientists on Talking to the Media
By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt and Mika Ono
Representatives from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) visited The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) recently and made the case for the importance of communicating about research to the media and the lay public.
Kevin McCormack, senior director of public communications and patient advocate outreach at CIRM, and Don Gibbons, senior science and education communications officer for CIRM, met with a group of TSRI scientists, staff and patient advocates in a media training workshop hosted by the Loring lab.
McCormack and Gibbons noted that communicating science is especially important as politicians and taxpayers scrutinize federal research budgets. A 2014 survey from the National Science Foundation found that the less science education people have, the less likely they are to support federal funding for scientific research.
Media relations can boost a scientist’s citations, too; data from a 2014 study in the peer-reviewed Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly showed that researchers who interacted with reporters had higher h-indices, a bibliographic measure of scientific impact. Scientists whose work was mentioned on Twitter also had significantly higher h-indices.
In the workshop, McCormack and Gibbons offered a number of tips for effective communication during a media interview:
- Prepare in advance. In advance of an interview, select three main points you want to highlight. Don’t be shy about rehearsing your answers out loud ahead of time.
- Ask your own questions. When you receive a media request, feel free to ask the reporter for background: What is the focus of the piece? Who else are you speaking with? What is the format (eg. live or taped)? If an interview request catches you by surprise, arrange to call the reporter back so you have time to gather your thoughts and do a Google search on the reporter, outlet and other background.
- Know your audience. Picture talking to an elementary school student or your grandmother—not your colleagues. Avoid jargon: your ultimate audience is a lay person, who would probably be confused by a word like “pluripotent.” Speak slowly enough so people have a chance to digest the information you are sharing.
- Keep it short. For TV, an effective sound bite is only about 10 seconds long. For radio, it is 10 to 45 seconds. If more time is available, use stories to illustrate your main points.
- Don’t fill silence. Don’t speak off-the-cuff just to fill uncomfortable silence. Once you have stated your main points, stop; there will be fewer opportunities for you to be quoted off topic. If a journalist wants more detail, he/she will ask follow up questions.
- Don’t step out of your comfort zone. Refuse to speculate or comment on topics outside your areas of expertise—it’s okay to say “I don’t know” or “I am not the right person to answer that question” and to use caveats such as “preliminary” in describing your results.
- “Bridge” back to your message. If faced with a question you consider off topic, acknowledge the question then find a way back to your message. Useful phrases include: “I don’t know about that; what I do know is…” “What’s important to remember is…” “Let me put that in perspective…” “I think what you are really asking is…” “What your viewers/listeners need to know is…”
- Take two. Especially if it’s not a live broadcast, feel free to stop and say, “I’d like to try that again.” Even if it is live, if you realize you have made a mistake, correct yourself promptly.
- Understand the interview doesn’t stop. It is safest to assume that everything said to a reporter could appear in tomorrow’s news. Don’t assume that just because the recorder is off or the reporter’s notebook is closed, the interview is over.
- Share the news yourself. Share your research by posting updates yourself. Twitter is a great outlet for reaching members of the media who want to read short headlines (see “TSRI Scientists Share Social Media Tips”). Facebook allows longer, more personalize messages, so it can be an effective way to reach patients, students and potential donors.
For more information on CIRM, see www.cirm.ca.gov
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