In one way or another, since I started my PhD more years ago than I care to remember, NERC (the Natural Environment Research Council) have funded much of my time in academia. Yet somehow, having been being based at Exeter and Southampton universities, I’ve never really felt ‘part’ of NERC. So it was good at last to make a pilgrimage to the Swindon motherland that is the NERC head offices to undertake their public engagement training earlier this week.
Last year, when we had an article published in a higher impact journal on a moss bank record of past climate change from Lazarev Bay in the Antarctic Peninsula, we got a fair bit of press interest and I blogged about that experience here. At the time, we wrote a couple of press releases and Bogology guest blogger Jessica Royles was interviewed on Voice of America radio. At the time, I thought the press releases we produced were pretty good. At least, they seemed to have done the job of getting a fair few web articles published (but none in the printed press), as well as that radio exposure.
So I felt pretty happy with the written side of dealing with the media (oh how little I knew!), but admittedly, the thought of being interviewed for radio left me feeling out of my depth, unprepared and panicky. In the event, Jessica did a sterling job (listen here) so I needn’t have worried. But I hoped that my future work might also warrant some press interest and knew I had to face the next potential media frenzy with more confidence. Cue some training and a trip to Swindon!
The course started off with a session run by the Independent’s science editor Steve Connor on the dos and don’ts of press release writing. By taking us through a range of good and bad examples he vividly illustrated how fine the line is between having your work picked up and missing out, especially when the time a journalist can give to the decision of whether or not to write about your research appears to be slightly shorter than the blink of an eye. We’d all been asked to provide a press release in advance to be critiqued on the course and rather than writing a new one I thought I would submit one we previously used for the Lazarev Bay article, to see what I could learn about something that had already been through the hands of the media and that I thought was not too shabby.
Well, to cut a long story short, it needed some adjusting! It’s amazing how with some expert advice and a fresh pair of eyes over the passing of time you can see your work in a fresh light. It was full of scientific jargon and long, convoluted sentences. We were all asked to read out our press releases to the group and as I read mine I was already smirking to myself at some of the language I knew was about to get a grilling. There was a quote attributed to me that as I read it out loud for the first time, I realised was written in, well, written language that sounded a bit ridiculous when actually spoken. First half of the first day done and plenty of lessons learned already.
In the afternoon we worked in groups to develop a public engagement activity, led by Karen Bultitude, a public engagement expert working at University College London. For quite a while now I’ve been thinking about developing ways in which I could take our peaty research out to a hands on and interactive audience but the light of a cracking idea has definitely been flickering rather than switched on. As it happened, our group somehow ended up developing an activity we christened ‘Strictly Come Ocean Dancing’ which involved teaching the elderly participants of a SAGA cruise ship about the wonders of the oceans through the medium of a choreographed dance of the thermohaline circulation, complete with red and blue t-shirts to illustrate the warm and cold currents! But the creative process of how to come up with ideas suddenly seemed a lot more obvious and hopefully something I can now apply to my own research.
The second day was dominated by the main event of the training course – radio interviews. Given the sense of unprepared dread I had felt at the prospect of a radio interview when our article had come out last year, this was really the hands on learning experience I was looking for. The session was run by Jane Reck, a freelance BBC radio journalist and a previous winner of the Royal Society Radio Prize. Jane was superb. She had a friendly and approachable demeanour but a wry sense of humour and clearly knew her stuff.
We all faced an extremely professional grilling for a few minutes and were then made to listen back to our torments and received some very valuable feedback. You can listen to my interview, talking about our moss bank research, below. I felt pretty uncertain about correcting Jane in the introduction (required as much as anything due to a lack of clarity in that blasted press release!), but overall I thought it went pretty well. The press release itself, already slightly torn to shreds the day before by Steve (in the nicest possible way of course) came in for some more constructive criticism. Jane did say that she was only being super-critical because she thought I could take it! I think I’ll take that as a compliment.
All in all it was a very valuable couple of days and I hope to have the chance to put the many lessons learnt into practice in the not so distant future. For any NERC-funded researchers out there looking for some guidance in getting your research into the media, I would thoroughly recommend it. It can be easy to get stuck in an academic way of thinking, making it hard to cut to the chase, drop the jargon and get to the point of why our research really matters. But if we really want to reach a wider audience, that is definitely what’s required.