In my day job, I’m a public information officer (PIO) at NC State University. Part of my job is to pitch research stories to reporters, and two of the tools I use when pitching stories are blog posts and news releases. This post discusses two examples that shed some light on how I decide which tool to use.
Earlier this summer, researchers came to me with two forthcoming papers. They had a lot in common. Both papers were being published in open access journals within a week of each other – one in PLOS ONE and one in PeerJ. Both papers involved animals that gave people the creeps – one on face mites and one on camel crickets. The researchers had high-quality images to go with both papers. Heck, both papers were even affiliated with the same lab (that of Rob Dunn and his NC State-based Your Wild Life project).
The key finding of the camel cricket paper was that a non-native species of camel cricket had spread throughout the eastern United States, apparently displacing native species, and that this had happened without anyone noticing. I thought that was pretty interesting, and wrote a news release about it. (I still think news releases are valuable tools.)
The paper on face mites was also really interesting, but I didn’t write a news release about it. Instead, we ran a blog post about the research on NC State’s research blog, The Abstract.
Why a Blog Post?
News releases tend to be fairly formulaic. They can’t be too short or too long, and they often resemble inverted journal articles. The conclusions go at the top (the lede paragraph), followed by discussion and more detailed information on the findings, followed by a brief discussion of methods, and ending with a dry recitation of relevant facts, like the name of the paper and where it was published. We even include the paper’s abstract at the very bottom of our news releases.
When I heard about the face mite paper, I arranged to talk with one of the co-authors, Michelle Trautwein, an adjunct faculty member at NC State who was then in the midst of transitioning from a position at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences to take a post as Schlinger Chair of Dipterology at the California Academy of Sciences.
Michelle explained the paper to me, noting that there were three really interesting findings. She did a great job of explaining the work, but there was no clear narrative thread that ran through all three findings. Or, to be more specific, I didn’t see a clear narrative thread that I would be able to pull together in the context of a news release.
What to do?
Blogs give us an enormous amount of flexibility in terms of how we choose to present information. I wanted to take advantage of that flexibility to do something fun, and hoped it would work. I wanted to create some scientifically literate, newsworthy clickbait.
People love lists. People also love (or at least click on) headlines that tease them with surprise information (“You’ll never guess what happened next!”). My idea was to write a post called “Three Things You Didn’t Know About the Arachnids That Live on Your Face” (mites are arachnids, FYI).
And, because Michelle had just done a great job of explaining the research to me, I asked her to write it. (She’d written a previous guest post for The Abstract on evolution, so I knew she could do it.)
She wrote it, I edited it, and we scheduled the post to go up as soon as the paper was published.
The embargo on the face mite paper lifted on August 27th. The embargo on the camel cricket paper lifted on September 2nd. I pitched both stories to a few reporters ahead of time. (Here are a couple links about embargoes and why I use them, if you’re curious.)
As I write this (on September 5), the face mite paper has been up for nine days, and has been written about in more than 90 news outlets (that I know of), including stories from NPR, Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science blog at National Geographic, and Gwen Pearson’s Charismatic Minifauna blog at Wired. Good stuff.
Meanwhile, the camel cricket paper has been out for three days, and has been written about in more than 50 news outlets (that I know of), including TIME, Science, and Brooke Borel’s Our Modern Plagues blog at Popular Science. Also good stuff.
These papers are getting a lot of attention because the research is interesting. But there’s a lot of interesting research out there. It’s a PIO’s job (my job) to let reporters know that a particular piece of interesting research exists. And the two examples discussed above highlight the fact that blog posts and news releases can be effective tools for disseminating information to reporters.
But the approach we took to the blog post gave us an additional benefit.
Michelle Trautwein is a good scientist. But unlike many scientists (sorry, scientists!) she’s also a good writer who is easy to edit (for which I am grateful). By getting her to write the blog post about the face mite paper, we were able to put something out that not only explained the work and its significance, but that allowed one of the scientists who actually did the work to explain it in her own words.
I think that first-person accounts, like this one, have real value. It offers some insight into how scientists think about their work, and can convey some of the researcher’s enthusiasm and passion for science. I think that’s cool.
And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Several news outlets asked us for permission to share her first-person account on their sites, including LiveScience and The Crux blog at Discover. I think that’s pretty cool too.
So, readers, what do you make of all this? If you’re a PIO, how do you decide which tools to use when promoting research? If you’re a reporter, do you care which vehicle PIOs use to convey information to you?