Working with the media can help to inform and educate different groups, inspire people about new discoveries or explain poorly-understood issues. To be effective it requires careful planning and consideration.
As with any public engagement activity, the first step is to work out why you want to communicate, what you want to get across (the purpose) and who you are trying to engage (the audience). This will help you work out the best media to use to reach your target audience.
There are many purposes that can be served by engaging with the media, including:
- To inform/educate different groups about a complicated or contentious issue
- To empower the audience to contribute to ongoing public debates
- To highlight and explain important yet little known, or poorly understood issues
- To inspire people with new discoveries and ideas
- To encourage new conversations with new audiences
- To gain public support for research, developments, discoveries and ideas
- To attract interest from potential funders or partners
- To increase the number of people entering careers in the field
Think about what you are trying to achieve. Different types of media will help you to reach different audiences.
- Do your research. Whichever media outlet you decide to approach, make sure that you fully understand the medium, the tone, style and the needs of the target audience.
- Take advice. If you have a press office, or colleagues who are experienced in dealing with the media, seek their assistance. Working with the media requires an understanding of how the media works and how to write for non-specialist audiences.
- Think ahead. Whether you are sending a press release, writing for a magazine or pitching a television programme, give yourself plenty of time. Media outlets have varying (and often lengthy) lead times.
- Time it right. Timing is crucial when working with the media. Success with the news media often depends on how current a story is, and whether it can be supported by other major news and events. It is also in danger of being overshadowed if there are a lot of other things happening. Working in TV is very dependent on the scheduling and the ‘fit’ with strands of programming being aired.
- Look for the bigger picture. Any media organisation is primarily concerned with appealing to its broadest audience. Don’t get bogged down with the nitty gritty of your research. Think about the implications of your research that are relevant to the target audience.
- Mind your language. Whatever the medium, your audience is likely to consist of people who know nothing of your research. Think carefully about the language you use, avoid jargon and make use of anecdotes and narrative to add interest. See our guide to narrative and storytelling for guidance.
- Think local. Local print, radio and TV media are often overlooked but can be a great way to reach a specific audience, and they are often looking for new content.
- Think about the needs of the medium. Each media organisation will be driven by its own agenda. Think about what they look for when commissioning content. What aspects of your research, or activity, lends itself to visual or audio elements, or opportunities for audience participation:
- Television requires video footage and strong visual imagery
- The print media require striking imagery, such as photographs
- Radio and podcasting require audio elements, such as sound effects
- Digital technology often requires opportunity for audience interaction
Commonly used approaches
If you have an announcement to make or have made a breakthrough in your research, a good first step is to send a press release to news organisations. These can include: local or national newspapers, online news sites, radio news bulletins, and local or national television news organisations. The news media will help you reach a wide audience, but you will have little control over what gets printed. If you have a press office they can help. You can find out more from our ‘Working with the news media’ guide.
Blogs and articles
You may wish to write an article or blog for a print or online publication. If you target special interest publications, e.g. National Geographic, you can reach a very specific audience. See our method: ‘Writing for Non Specialist Audiences’ for guidance.
If you want to engage people with a fun element of your research, or to promote a local engagement event, local radio is a great way of connecting with the local community. See our guide ‘Working with local radio’ for guidance.
Digital media can provide an easier way to connect directly with an audience, i.e., via blogs, forums, social networking sites, video and audio podcasts, etc. This can be a great way of allowing audiences to get involved at their own convenience, take an active participation in your activity and can be useful in targeting specific groups. Find out more about podcasting and working with digital media.
If you are a skilled presenter and want to educate a captive audience, you could submit a pitch for a television programme. This is a useful way of reaching a wide audience and promoting your subject area on a national level. But remember - getting commissioned is a tricky and time-consuming task. See our guide: ‘Working in TV’ for guidance.
Before you start
Before communicating through the media, there are a few things you should consider:
- Working with the media isn’t an easy option. It requires a good deal of understanding of how the media works and an ability to write succinctly for non-specialist audiences.
- Be prepared to put in a lot of time and effort just to get your foot through the door.
- Be prepared to be unsuccessful. Media organisations have their own agendas, and they also receive numerous ideas, press releases and requests every day. Rejection rates are high.
- Think about unintended consequences. Don’t be surprised if the content you produce, or the interviews you give are edited or used in ways you may not have intended.
- Network and build up contacts. Who you know is often as important as what you know when working with the media.
- Be prepared to look at the bigger picture. It can be difficult for a researcher to step away from their body of knowledge. Practice on a colleague or friend who you trust and who is not a specialist in your area to give you honest feedback.