A Case for Scientists to Talk to Reporters (and Work with PIOs)

Photo: Intel Free Press
Photo: Intel Free Press

Many scientists are reluctant to talk to reporters about their research, much less work with their institution’s public information officers (PIOs) to draw the attention of the press in the first place. But a recent study highlights the fact that working with “traditional media” may create professional benefits for scientists.

A paper describing the work, “A Case Study in Serendipity: Environmental Researchers Use of Traditional and Social Media for Dissemination,” was published December 13, 2013, in PLOS ONE. The paper was authored by Clare Wilkinson and Emma Weitkamp of the University of the West of England, Bristol.

The study involved a survey of 149 European environmental science researchers whose work had been covered by a specialist e-news service called Science for Environmental Policy (SfEP) between January 2011 and June 2012. (SfEP is funded by the European Commission.) Respondents were asked a wide range of questions, including whether there were any outcomes related to their work being featured in SfEP, whether they had also worked with traditional media (newspaper, TV, radio), and whether they worked with their institution’s press offices (i.e., PIOs).


Photo: The Official CTBTO Photostream
Photo: The Official CTBTO Photostream

The section on outcomes is particularly interesting, especially in regard to the difference between outcomes of coverage in SfEP versus coverage in traditional media. For example, respondents were asked whether coverage of their research had resulted in an invitation to participate in a conference. Because SfEP targets a specific audience, which is presumably predisposed to take an interest in environmental science, I thought coverage there would result in higher conference participation rates than in mainstream news outlets. I was wrong.

Only 27 percent of respondents said coverage in SfEP led to an invite to participate in a conference, whereas 57 percent of respondents said coverage in traditional media led to a conference invite.

The trend held true for a variety of other outcomes. 61 percent of respondents said traditional media coverage led to their being contacted by other researchers, versus 49 percent for SfEP. Discussions with policy-makers? 48 percent versus 30 percent. Discussions with members of the public? A whopping 63 percent versus 17 percent.

There’s no data on whether those discussions led to any concrete benefits for the scientists involved. However, it’s worth noting that increased interest from other researchers certainly doesn’t hurt a scientist’s odds of garnering citations (there is some evidence that traditional media coverage helps with citations). And interest from policy-makers and the public can be a very good thing in terms of garnering future research funding.

Science Communication and Funding

The idea that science communication efforts are key to research funding is worth highlighting (I’ve done it before: here, here and here), in part because researchers often fail to see the connection.

As the paper notes: “In our survey, few researchers made a link between efforts to disseminate their research to either academic or non-academic audiences and outcomes of funding applications (which might be considered important for their careers). This suggests that although funding agencies are now encouraging the embedding of impacts, including public engagement, within research, few researchers are making this connection to opportunities for engaging in a wider range of dissemination activities for a wider range of audiences.”

The paper adds that the study results “suggest that researchers are reacting to opportunities for dissemination” (emphasis mine) and that “researchers remain relatively non-strategic in their dissemination strategies.”

Proactive efforts to disseminate findings are where PIOs come in. A good science PIO can help researchers effectively communicate research findings to key audiences. (Note: I’m a PIO. So the cynical may argue that I would say that.)

The paper argues that “from the perspective of researchers, it makes sense to draw upon the specialist skills of press officers to maximise the chances of their research being covered in mass media.” Yet more than 30 percent of the study respondents reported never working with their institution’s PIOs. That’s a minority, but it represents a lot of missed opportunities.

Ultimately, my take on the paper is that researchers may be well-advised to take advantage of media outreach opportunities – and to work with PIOs when they’ve got significant findings worth sharing.


7 thoughts on “A Case for Scientists to Talk to Reporters (and Work with PIOs)

  1. I fully subscribe to your message here (I am a PIO, after all), but I do wonder if part of the effect is that things that get picked up by traditional media are ‘bigger’ and therefore get attention (e.g. in the form of conference invitations) because they are ‘bigger’, rather than because they were covered in traditional media…


    1. Thanks for that link, Matt – I wasn’t aware that the ‘earmark hypothesis’ had a name, but mostly it’s nice to see it’s been looked at, and interesting that it doesn’t seem to hold true. Bookmarked for future reference. 😉


  2. Paige Brown

    So was the lesson that it’s better for environmental / science researchers to target their communication efforts to traditional media vs. the specialized media outlets like SfEP?


  3. Hi Paige,
    I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. If you’re promoting your work, odds are excellent that both types of outlets will express an interest. As a PIO, I almost always reach out to both “general” and “specific” media outlets.


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