What REALLY Happens When Researchers Work with the Press?

Woman pointing a camera

Credit: PicJumbo

Over the past week, the Internet was abuzz following the publication of a study in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly (Building Buzz: (Scientists) Communicating Science in New Media Environments) which showed that a researcher’s scientific impact gets a boost from not only the news media but from Twitter too!

The study provides additional evidence to support what those of us working in science communication have been preaching for years – that public/news media outreach by scientists can have a direct (and very positive) impact on their work and reputation.

One of my favorite science communication bloggers, Matt Shipman (@shiplives), wrote an excellent review of the paper here. I encourage you to check it out.

While these days I’m focused on strategic marketing and communication as it relates to university research, I spent a large portion of my career working in media relations. As I read the research, and Matt’s review, I started thinking about the times I helped individual researchers promote their work, and the payoff many of them experienced as a result. These were scientists and engineers who were often reluctant to work with the press. And speaking with a reporter was a task they rarely made time for.

I tracked down an old binder with media clips from 2005-2006. At the time, I led communications for the Georgia Tech Research Institute. (This was before Twitter was a thing, in case you were wondering.) As I flipped through the pages, I saw what I was looking for – researchers talking about the impact media exposure had on their work.

In each of the examples below, researchers spent time being interviewed by science writers, subjected themselves to photo shoots and engaged in phone interviews. A few also welcomed television crews into their labs, which is time-consuming – to say the least. Their research was also featured in Georgia Tech’s Research Horizons Magazine and the GTRI Annual Report, as well as the website. And for a few of them, we created NPR-style podcasts.

These examples, which include feedback provided by researchers who (at the time) engaged with the media, prove that media exposure can enhance scientific impact: 

Accessibility Testing

We had a group of human factors researchers who specialized in testing the usability of consumer products. From coffee makers to hedge clippers, they worked with companies to make products easier for people to use. (more info)

Results: “We’ve received a lot of recognition in our area of research. In fact, we just presented at a conference and I couldn’t count the huge number of people who are still talking about the articles that ran (6 months ago.) The story definitely has legs. It’s helping us solidify our reputation as leaders in human factors research. We’ve also been invited to submit white papers to several organizations including a dental device manufacturer and a packaging company. We also heard from people around the country doing related or similar research, which may lead to future collaborations. We were also contacted by many people interested in being subjects for our research – volunteers like that are very hard to recruit.“

Chemical Companion

This group of researchers developed a software tool that ran on a PDA to help first responders quickly find information about 130 of the most common chemicals associated with HAZMAT incidents. (more info)

Results: In the first two weeks (following the release), the lead researcher had been contacted by more than 75 potential research collaborators. The contacts represented a wide range of organizations including emergency medical services, fire departments, emergency management officials and law enforcement agencies. They also came from far and wide – 23 different states as well as from Australia, Canada, Israel, the Dominican Republic and Chile.

Indoor Air Quality Testing

Using a room-sized environmental test chamber, more than a dozen smaller chambers, and a mass spectrometric center, these researchers helped companies manufacturing many different products meet international standards to minimize emissions. (more info)

Results: “That story you did generated quite a bit of feedback, resulting in at least two contracts and inquiries. (Including a follow-up photo shoot with National Geographic.) One contract was for $175,000 and the other for $36,000. In addition, there is another pending that looks like it might come through to use the chambers.”

Fuel Cell Powered Aircraft

The researchers conducted successful test flights of a hydrogen-powered unmanned aircraft, which – at the time – was believed to be the largest to fly on a proton exchange membrane fuel cell using compressed hydrogen. (more info)

Results: “Talk about impact…I walked into a meeting with the Irish Secretary General for Communications and Natural Resources, and his very first remark was to exclaim the news of our Fuel Cell UAV! I came to talk with him about Internet Television, and we spent half the meeting talking about sustainable energy. He brought with him one of his senior execs who has the responsibility for developing the research agenda for Ireland in sustainable energy. With that lead into the discussions, you can imagine how the rest of the meeting went.”

It’s a Team Effort

I would love to take full credit for the results we had, but the truth is that it requires a team to do this right. It takes strategists, writers, editors, photographers, videographers, webmasters and others. And let’s not forget the most important players, willing researchers who share what they know and dedicate some of their limited time to making the outreach possible.

I also have to acknowledge that working with the press includes its fair share of risk. I’ll save the details for a future post. I will, however, encourage you to work closely with your friendly neighborhood media relations person or public information officer. As researchers are experts in their area of study, communicators are experts in how to tell compelling and accurate stories that get results. They can also prepare you for tough questions and refine your messaging so it’s understandable to a diverse audience. Finally, they are looking out for you – so engage them early.

I’m not sure it’s possible to count the number of excellent articles and/or blog posts which have been written about the good things that can happen when scientists and engineers step out of the lab and into the spotlight. With this piece, I wanted to provide some real-world examples so that those who may be ‘on the fence’ about engaging with the news media recognize that it can actually work. I hope you find it helpful.


Note: Special thanks to fellow Scilogs blogger Matt Shipman for providing the inspiration that pushed me to dig through my files to find the examples I used in this post.


Building Buzz: (Scientists) Communicating Science in New Media Environments,” Xuan Liang, Leona Yi-Fan Su, Sara K. Yeo, Dietram A. Scheufele, Dominique Brossard, Michael Xenos, Paul Nealey, and Elizabeth A. Corley, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, published online 12 September 2014. DOI: 10.1177/1077699014550092

Podcast courtesy of the Georgia Tech Research Institute http://gtri.gatech.edu/files/media/industry-solutions/Product_Accessibility_Podcast.mp3

(This piece was originally posted to my LinkedIn blog September 29, 2014)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s