[This post has been co-written with sci comms coordinator Anu Haapala].
If you happen to come across research results that are worth sharing with the general public through online publications or traditional newspapers, you’ll usually need to approach them with a press release. As the inner workings of press releases are notoriously difficult for scientists to grasp (what, you have to present things in the wrong order??) and as no-one actually teaches scientists how to write them, I have teamed up with our specialist Anu to provide some help.
Of course, if you live in fairyland, your university has a scientific communications team that simply reads your paper, understands its content and implications better than you, and compresses all this into a readable, exciting press release that instantly makes you a media superstar. But if you live in the same world as the rest of us, you might actually have to work a bit with said comms team as your results might not be as comprehensible to non-specialists as you think. Also, it might help if you’d understand what it is that the comms people are trying to achieve — what is their output? And, more often than not, you might, unfortunately, even need to write the press release yourself because there are not enough comms people around… so how should you do it?
There are two key things to understand here: 1) the intended audience and 2) the structure of the press release.
Let’s begin with the audience. In fact, a press release has two audiences: the first is the journalists who act as gatekeepers, and the second is their audience, the general public or its subsets such as tech-savvy readers or wannabe astronomers or similar. The gatekeeper role of the journalists comes from their need to serve their own audience: they only publish your story if they think it is of interest to their audience.
This has direct consequences on the form and structure of a scientific press release. First, the press release has to be written in a way that journalists are used to seeing and they can make best use of it (which is very different from scientific writing!), and second, its language and content should be comprehensible to laypersons.
The way journalists would write any news story – and the way you should write your press release too – is to put the most important thing first, followed by other things in decreasing order of importance. This inverted-pyramid structure has historical reasons: there is limited space in a newspaper, and shortening a story is easier if the editor can just chop off a few last paragraphs without doing much damage to the central point. At the same time, this structure makes the story more readable: the readers do not need to wonder what the point of the story is if this point is the first thing that they encounter. In other words, they see immediately what all the fuss is about and whether they want to read more about it.
The problem is that we scientists are really not used to writing this way: it almost physically hurts us to give away the main result immediately, in the very first sentence, without lengthy motivation or background or methods or anything to prep the reader with. But no pain, no gain: this is what you should do. Always begin with the main result, formulated in plain language that even your grandmother who never went to high school can understand. This is difficult, we know, so coming up with the proper words might take quite some time. But it’s worth it.
After introducing the main result, you should tell why the results matter and what follows from them, again in plain language and using only words that your audience can understand. What is now possible? What new and wonderful things can now be achieved? How has your result made the world a better place? And after this, you can continue to add in paragraphs in decreasing order of importance (to your target audience!). These paragraphs can add further details to your result, talk about the setting where it was obtained (your research group, an international collaboration…), sketch some future directions, and so on. It is probably safe to leave methods last, unless they contain something that would be especially interesting to your target audience (of non-scientists, remember!).
Journalists are used to killing their darlings, though, and you should, too. This means that you should critically evaluate each paragraph you write. If any of them seems unnecessary or trivial to anyone outside your own research community, don’t hesitate to press the delete button. News desks receive dozens of press releases each day, which means that journalists are ready to give their precious time only to a selected few. The shorter and snappier your press release is, the more likely journalists are to read your release through and publish it as such.
Leaving blanks in the right places can even encourage them to grab their phones and call you with follow-up questions. For this very reason, always remember to include your phone number and email address at the end of the press release. Journalists want to contact you, the specialist, directly and right now instead of trying to catch you through your university comms for days. (Believe us, they can hardly imagine anything more frustrating than an interviewee who is playing hide and seek!) So when you send out a press release, make sure you do it at a time when you are actually available to pick up your phone and discuss your research, even if just for five minutes.
What should not be the first thing that you leave out of your press release, however, are quotes. Good press releases contain an element of human interest in the form of quotes, things that you or a colleague of yours say about your results or research. “We had never thought about X until we figured out that Y”, says N.N., a postdoctoral scientist. “Then, the solution practically presented itself, and we knew how to do Z.” Quotes are an easy way to build bridges from one topic to another in the storyline of your press release: it might be even easier to use a quote than to write something up as a full paragraph (see the example above). In addition, humans (your readers) are always interested in other humans, so quotes make your press release more appealing.
Please remember that your press release is NOT a scientific publication: it does not need to tell everything (like the details of your methods). That’s what your original paper is for. You should leave out things that are too difficult (or too boring) for the intended audience. You may need to invent analogies or to simplify your results a lot: as long as you are truthful, this is perfectly fine! The only thing to avoid is over-generalization or exaggerating your work (despite some sci comms folks and some journalists craving for sexy headlines): make everything simpler, but keep it real. Also, send your release out in a format that is easy to copy, paste, and edit. Most comms teams use centralized press release services, but if you cannot access one, send out a simple email message! This is much better than hiding your release in an attachment: here, creating a nice-looking PDF will only slow you down.
Finally, timing counts too. Remember your first target audience: the gatekeeper journalists. Journalists want NEWS, they want things that happen right now, and they want news before their competitors! This means that you should send out your press release so that as soon as the result is out (some journals have press embargoes), they can run their story. A week or a month later won’t do; it’s very hard to make a journalist interested in a result that was published weeks ago. So as soon as you know your publication date, contact your sci comms people and start preparing your press release.