1 May 2015

Media training? Don't feel chicken about it!

Working with the media can be a fast and effective way for researchers to share their work with large audiences. Judy Bettridge reports on how she honed her skills and gained confidence at a recent media training workshop.

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.
― Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

I started my working life as a vet in a small animal clinic. I was used to the fact that people constantly wanted things to happen, well... immediately. My entire working day could be rearranged at a moment’s notice. Planning anything beyond the next hour or so was often pointless, as new things were constantly added to the day’s to-do list. The variety made it interesting, and the fast-paced nature of the work meant you couldn’t spend very long on any one problem.  Making the transition to research meant getting used to very different timescales. I’ve now spent more than four years on the same problem – thinking about chickens, sampling chickens, writing about chickens and talking to people about chickens. Part of the reason it took so long is that there are actually far more complexities surrounding chickens and their diseases than I ever imagined, and so it took time to collect all the information and build the models that get the story right. As a scientist, I want to make sure I have thoroughly tested all my assumptions and have confidence in the data before throwing our darling project into the lion’s den of peer-review. (Also, I had to write a thesis, so no wonder it’s taken a while!) Anyway, the point I’m making is that, apart from the four-year submission deadline, the chickens and I have been left to work at pretty much our own pace. We have a complex story that nicely fills a few hundred pages of thesis, and will hopefully form the basis of a few more good publications.

But what happens when my slow-moving world of chicken research meets the fast-paced world of journalism? I went on one of BBSRC’s Media Training Workshops to find out...

The one-day course was organised by BBSRC’s press officers, with tutoring provided by experienced journalists through a mixture of talks and practical sessions. Held in London, it was attended by 12 researchers from as far afield as Aberdeen and Norfolk. Attendees were from a range of fields and everything from PhD students to senior lecturers, but all of us were pretty well complete novices when it came to having had any dealings with the media. The day started with an introduction into how journalists operate – what their priorities are, how to get them interested in your work and how to make it accessible to them. We then got to have a go at writing our own press releases, putting some of their tips into practice. Feedback was given on these later in the day, with journalists explaining how they would write the first line of these articles to draw readers in, and highlighting some of the science jargon that might not be understandable to readers.

Jargon-busting was also a feature of the next practical – preparing for interviews. Working in small groups, we then had to face mock radio interviews with local and national radio journalists (on the condition that you weren’t allowed to start any of your sentences with “So...” and you weren’t allowed to comment that you hated the sound of your own voice!)  Interviews were played back and we were given feedback and allowed to comment on each others’ performance. A second interview, after lunch, gave us the chance to work on any issues that had come up in the course of the morning and try out any new techniques that we wanted to have a go at. Both the journalists that we worked with were incredibly friendly and not at all aggressive in their questioning style (unless, of course, you wanted them to be!) They also gave us tips on how to deal with questions that might be controversial, or leading away from the main message you want to deliver.

Surveying chickens in Ethiopia

For me personally, the biggest challenge was how to condense the complexities surrounding the chicken disease story into neat little soundbites. When I know how much uncertainty and contingencies are contained within my results, and how far away this is from translating into practical outcomes, it was surprisingly difficult to come across as positive and confident when I could only give a tiny part of the story. Also, having worked in a multidisciplinary project, it was very easy to stray into discussing areas outside my speciality, where again it was very difficult to appear confident, not knowing all the detail. However, having the chance to do a second interview was great, and I came out of the second one feeling much more in control of the discussion and felt I gave a better “performance” second time around. Also, getting the human and personal sides of the work across was much easier with a bit of practice, and went down really well with the journalists.

Discussing our research with local farmers
So, in deference to what I learned, what are the three key messages I want to get across here?
1)    Preparation is everything. Know the key messages you want to get out there and think about the audience you are trying to reach – how will they understand your research?
2)    Think of novel places you could put your research. One of my interviewers remarked that she could see the chickens going down well on Radio 4’s “Women’s Hour”!
3)    Use the resources available. Both the University and BBSRC have dedicated media teams to help you identify opportunities and reach new audiences. If your work becomes topical, that’s the time to get it out there, not just when you get a new paper or a grant.

So... would I be prepared to engage with the media after attending this course? With my positive and confident performer’s hat on, then I have to say yes, I would! Perhaps journalists have more immediate deadlines, but from the more laid-back perspective of a chicken researcher, why not have something prepared well in advance and look for the opportunities to tell people about it?

Dr Judy Bettridge is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Infection and Global Health currently working on the Chickens Health for Development (CH4D) research project.

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