Communicating Science in the Clickbait Era: Tips and Lessons From EurekAlert’s 2016 PIO Seminar

Photo credit: Hash Milhan. Shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.
Photo credit: Hash Milhan. Shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Chanapa Tantibanchachai, a public information officer (PIO) at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Keep reading to learn what tips Tantibanchachai picked up at EurekAlert’s 2016 seminar for PIOs.

“Charmingly intelligent”: a strong contender for the next iteration of my Twitter bio and how panelists at EurekAlert’s 2016 PIO (Public Information Officer) Seminar described the ideal headline for communicating science in the clickbait era.

Chanapa Tantibanchachai. Photo courtesy of Tantibanchachai.
Chanapa Tantibanchachai. Photo courtesy of Tantibanchachai.

The half-day seminar on Dec. 2 featured an impressive line-up of reporters and seasoned science PIOs who gave key tips and tricks on the ever-changing landscape of science communication.

This year’s theme, “communicating science in the clickbait era,” was more relevant than ever given the hoopla in recent weeks about fake news and social media’s liability (or lack thereof) for spreading it.

Before I go ahead with my round-up of the seminar, let me just say that I’m honored Matt asked me to write a guest blog.

I wasn’t done with graduate school when I landed my first job as a science PIO. My former employer knew I had a strong science writing background and graciously took a chance on me, even though I was completely inexperienced in the PIO side of things. But I was completely in over my head. Distribution lists? Building relationships with reporters? Pitching? I had no clue what any of those were.

I somehow stumbled upon Matt’s book, Handbook for Science Public Information Officers, while Googling something along the lines of “how to write a pitch” about a year ago. I read as much as Google preview allowed me to and admit that I just purchased the book a few months ago, but it’s been a godsend for an early-career science PIO.

It’s been about a year since I stumbled upon that book and a little over two years since I jumped into the science PIO realm. I still have a lot to learn and resources such as Matt’s book and this seminar are invaluable for getting gems of knowledge straight from the experts. So thanks, Matt, for putting your book out into the world and asking me to write a guest post!

Here are the key points from speakers at the EurekAlert conference.

Nancy Shute, NPR

  • Key takeaway: Know your audience and go to them. The majority of NPR’s Health Shots audience is women 20-40 years old while their broadcast mostly draws males older than 50, so different audiences are clearly attracted to different mediums for news. Think long and hard about your audience, build pathways to reach them and cater your content to them.
  • NPR’s real-time debate fact-checker received 7 million views, a record for NPR, and highlighted the importance of public engagement with journalism in real time.
  • 30-40 percent of traffic to NPR is drawn from Facebook, which confirms that Facebook remains a key player in news distribution.

Lazaro Gamio, Washington Post

  • Key takeaway: If it has graphic potential, make it a graphic. Even if you, the PIO, have to create an unimpressive one on your own, just give it your best shot.
  • Articles with original artwork receive 162 percent more page views! It’s a no-brainer that articles with images perform better, but this distinction between original artwork and stock photos is telling. People don’t want to look at a cheesy stock photo of an emergency room or the human heart, they want images of the actual research. That’s a lot easier said than done, but hearing this statistic will definitely push me to prioritize finding compelling images and working with either our graphic design team or the researchers before I write a release and not put it off until the last minute and hastily choose something from iStock.
  • When sending reporters a story, also provide the researcher’s original dataset if possible so the news outlet can build the charts.
  • moar-data-cat-sidebarGamio said he “Want[s] to spend time with scientists and do justice to their lives and research,” which was a beautiful sentiment that I’ll gladly share with the next skeptical researcher I run into. I was in a meeting about a month ago and brought up how media relations and journalism probably come off as inauthentic to researchers, who are understandably turned off by people that, from their perspective, are trying to condense and distort their life’s work. I always say that science writing is 50 percent actually science writing and 50 percent building relationships and trust. I know I can’t build trust on the media’s behalf, but as a PIO who works directly with researchers and hears about their skepticism firsthand, I’m obligated to do my best to soothe their fears and walk them through the process.
  • Someone in the audience asked Gamio how he determines whether a story is too difficult to communicate with a graphic. His answer is to iterate, label everything, reach people where they are and provide people with the tools and road signs to help them understand.
  • Gamio wants to see ALL of the data. So if you have any, send it over!

Jessica Naudziunas, Buzzfeed

  • Key takeaway: Look beyond Buzzfeed’s listicles and seemingly fluffy quizzes because they’re a media force to be reckoned with. Buzzfeed receives over 200 million views every month and is staffed with talented reporters, they just go about packaging their news in nontraditional ways.
  • One thing that really stuck with me was when Naudziunas said she wants to report and inform the way she’d talk to her best friend. I have to admit I eye-rolled more than a few times during her presentation, but when she urged the audience to think about how we share news with our friends, it hit me that she was right; I always send news links simply with just “OMG,” “Literally though,” or “Why,” which is exactly how Buzzfeed frames their news.
  • Pitch things to Buzzfeed in a Buzzfeed-y way. A good example was a story about Alaskan birds in danger, which a PIO submitted for the Pitch Slam session. Jessica suggested that a way to pitch the story to Buzzfeed would have been to headline with “We need to talk about these birds in Alaska.”

Jason Towsend, NASA

  • Key takeaway: The goal is to turn your fans, follows and consumers into creators, collaborators and brand ambassadors. You don’t want people to simply like your content, but to help take your content to the next level by making it their own and sharing it across platforms you may not have access to.
  • NASA created a SoundCloud account and uploaded space sounds to it. As a result, people have integrated those space sounds into music. What a time to be alive.
  • Follow pop culture closely and tie your institution’s work to trending topics. For NASA, that’s included One Direction and Sharknado. In response to criticism that piggy-backing onto these topics was silly or undermined science, Jason said NASA’s goal is to inspire the next generation of explorers, so if that means getting young girls excited about space through a One Direction video, so be it! I think Bob Dylan said it best: “The times, they are a changin’.”

David Cameron, Harvard University

  • Key takeaway: The largest challenge we all have is communicating science in an atmosphere of mistrust (particularly true lately with all the hoopla about fake news). This isn’t a tactical issue with a tactical solution, Cameron said, but rather an existential one. So how do we approach it? We have to return to the core principle that every message we put out, whether as PIOs or journalists, is credible and has integrity. As Cameron’s former boss, Rick Borchelt, once advised him: “Our job is to manage a trust portfolio.”
  • Communicate authenticity, because trust is only given when something is relatable.

Pitch Slam Tips

  • Ask yourself, is it a significant study in the field? If not, is it quirky?
  • Show, don’t tell. Again, visuals are key.
  • Also ask yourself, “Why would I share this?” Sharing, not liking, is the priority point of engagement nowadays.
  • PIOs need to operate under the same standards as journalists. Don’t allow yourself to be an in-house press release machine. When reviewing a manuscript, ask yourself if it’s a significant step forward in the field. Don’t put out a release for incremental steps forward or for something that may have done well in a poster session at a niche conference, but won’t be newsworthy for a general audience.
  • Email is still the best way to reach reporters.
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