Press release guidelines for scientists
We live in an era of unprecedented scientific progress. The growing impact of technology has brought science ever more into our daily lives. However, without a general awareness of science in the public domain and a lack of a broad appreciation of scientific progress, the public is left with nothing to counterbalance the pervasive influence of mystical beliefs.
There are many good reasons for scientists to participate in science communication:
- To expose the work of his/her specific community.
- To highlight a specific result.
- To highlight the work of an institution.
- To highlight the work of a group.
- To highlight individual efforts.
- To acknowledge a sponsor.
- To benefit the scientific community as a whole (a sense of duty).
In the following sections you will find the most important information about one of the fundamental instruments of science communication: The press release.
- The press release
- The main goals of press releases
- Different types of press releases
- Visual support
- News criteria
- How to write a press release
- Some brief advice for science writing
“Press releases” are one of the main vehicles used by a communication office to inform the world about scientific advances. Naturally the results themselves should make a press release, but a few simple guidelines can help to make the release a success. Although the main target group for press releases is the press, press releases do reach further. Press releases communicate important information to decision-makers, other mediators, scientists and even to the public. It is critically important always to tailor the style, level and content of a press release to suit the needs of the press and not the secondary target groups mentioned.
Typically, the institution is involved either through its scientists or a project managed by the institution. A close collaboration with the scientist (the Principal Investigator) is vital for the practical work. He or she can help, either by supplying a short text describing the result in simple terms, or by explaining the situation over the phone.
The Public Information Officer co-operates with the scientist to draft the press release. Once the scientist has approved the release it is often sent to an internal editorial board that reviews the political and scientific issues.
As with other types of public science communication the press release has to fulfil three main goals:
- To increase awareness of science and the scientific work process
- To increase awareness of the organisation
- To increase awareness of specific scientific projects, instruments or missions
Three significant, different types of releases exist:
- News release: focuses on one or more scientific discoveries
- Photo release: contains “pretty pictures”, but no big discovery
- Video release: Some news releases are accompanied by a Video News Release (VNR). A VNR is a press release in video form designed for use on broadcast television or on websites — as a news item or feature story. VNRs translate the printed word into the sound and pictures television newsrooms need.
In most cases any written release will be accompanied by high-quality photos and a video.
Images, illustrations and visual design are key factors in successful science communication. The effort needed here can hardly be overemphasised. It is true that all good science communication is based on good science, but without good visuals the chances of selling the products vanish. Images have always been an integral part of science, but two factors have contributed to increase the importance of images in particular: the advent of computers and the continuing decrease in the attention span of the average human.
We work closely with the scientist to create the best possible visuals, either as artist’s impressions drawn from raw data from Hubble or as videos.
How can the newsworthiness of a given scientific finding be judged?
Assess whether the story fulfils one or more of the following news criteria:
- Timing : The story is ‘news’ (the event has just taken place).
- Relevance : An issue that has direct or near-direct influence on people’s lives such as fatalities and material damage.
- Proximity : The story has local appeal or local interest (happened in the town or the country).
- Implications : A result that has profound consequences.
- Conflict : Settles a controversial debate or a much-debated topic that contains intrigues.
- Human interest : For instance “Astronomer discovers new galaxies while raising three children and teaching women’s self-defence class in her spare time.”
- Mystery : A mysterious phenomenon, quirky details, an unexpected result or a chance discovery.
- Major science : Represents a major discovery of a new phenomenon or class of object or an incremental gain in knowledge about a principal field of research.
- New interesting angle : Twisting an old result in a new way, such as a new, better image that confirms a known result.
- A record : First, largest, most distant, fastest, oldest ….
- A sexy topic : Some topics almost always capture the attention of the public (despite not necessarily being great science) and therefore have a fast track to the headlines. Some examples from astronomy are: Solar System topics, space weather, black holes, extrasolar planets, extraterrestrial life, the future of the Earth and Sun and human spaceflight.
- Aesthetics : such as an exceptionally beautiful image.
- Publication in a distinguished journal : Results published in, for example, Nature or Science tend to attract more interest from journalists.
- Crosslinking : Letting a result piggyback on another news story in a related, parallel or even a remotely related field.
- Hot or Not?: If you think you have a good science result, check with the list of News Criteria above to see if your result is likely to interest the press and the public.
- Be proactive: If your science fulfils one or more of these news criteria, do not hesitate to tell us about it. If we, here at ESA/Hubble, consider your story “hot” we can help you in many ways.
- Participate in the process: Work with us to prepare a press release. Be prepared to spend some time explaining the science and to make the proper information available to the science communicator here.
- Involve other institutions: The Public Information Officer (PIO) here will interface with PIOs of other institutions that have participated in the work, possibly proposing a simultaneous co-release.
- Create images: Some sort of eye-catching image or illustration to accompany the press release is practically mandatory. Work with us to create appealing and correct imagery
- Add value: Many scientists like to make a more specialised webpage containing additional information, translations of the press release into other languages, additional images, graphs, technical movies etc. Scientists are sometimes in a better position to interface with local media and often have a much more detailed knowledge about them than us.
When writing a draft for a press release it may be worthwhile to have a glance at some standard advice for science writing in general.
- Prepare properly: It is important to set boundary conditions regarding the topic, the length, the target group and the style.
- Do your research: Start by answering the six golden questions: What? When? Where? Who?Why? and How?
- - Scan the current scientific literature on the topic
- - Review your own writing on the topic
- - Mine the web
- Structure your thinking: For example, brainstorm the topic: Check if some of the elements are connected in patterns that may help you choose your angle.
- Relax: It is often suggested that a writer should relax and not be too concerned about the needs of the reader in order to sound genuine.
- Be consistent: Follow some consistent writing guideline, either of your own choice or imposed by the system (for instance via your organisation’s style guide), for example: Spelling, Grammar etc.
- Simplify: A fundamental rule of written science communication is to make texts as simple as possible. Nowadays people simply do not have time for lengthy explanations.
- Explain: It is always necessary to match the writing to the level of the target group, but never more so than in science writing. Remember that “the reader knows nothing”. Always spell out abbreviations. Build up your explanations from the lowest level, but try not to patronise, and avoid being overly didactic. The educational aspects go unnoticed in the best communication.
- Edit: Re-reading and editing a text always improves its quality. Especially if the editor is someone other than the author.
- Modern aids: Several useful features in modern word processing software make life easier for authors, for example spellcheckers and thesauruses.
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