Monday, December 15, 2008

Placing Science and Health Stories: What Works Now

Last Friday I attended a meeting for public information officers held by AAAS’ EurekAlert! news service. The room was packed with university, corporate, and other science communications leaders. It was one of the most informative presentations I’ve been too in a long time. Here are some highlights and lessons learned.

Panel members: Karl Bates, Director of Research Communications, Duke University; Nils Burzelius, Deputy National Editor/Science and Tom Kennedy Managing Editor for Multimedia, The Washington Post; Art Chimes, Host of Our Word science program, Voice of America; Jorge Ribas, Video Producer, Discovery News; Rea Blakey, Host of Discovery Health: CME (moderator).

Realities of this new media world:

Most people will be reading your information on 3” screens

Your readers/viewers can talk back to you and tell you that you are an idiot

You are just one click away from a referral to someone’s entire network

70% of the people who come to your site are there for two seconds

The main message of the panel was that video helps sell your story. You can buy a good hand-held video camera for around $100, and you should. Video makes press releases more compelling. Some ideas:

No more talking heads – They’re boring and people don’t listen. If you must do a talking head - dress him up. For a presentation on stem cells Duke ran footage of them as a backdrop. Stem cells have beautiful colors and are constantly changing.

Going viral – Just because you post video doesn’t mean it will be watched but if it’s creative and different you have a much better chance. Here are two examples:

Dancing Shrimp went up on YouTube to demonstrate an experiment scientists were doing. People started setting it to music and it ended up on the Today Show.

Particle Physics rap song – Student Kate McAlpine was trying to explain complex science with rap and it was picked up everywhere.

Raw footage is best – Say goodbye to expensively produced video and b-roll. The media prefers 90 seconds of raw footage that it can use in a longer piece. BTW the most popular videos on YouTube are 7-9 minutes.

Losing control of your footage – This is a fear from lawyers and many executives. While you can’t control every use you can watermark it so they know it’s yours and it will always have your brand on it.

Your expert on video – Think of it as an audition tape. The media wants to show viewers what scientists are working on – not just read about it.

Some other thoughts for communicating science and health:

Get your field researchers to set up an FTP site – Footage can be used to report as they go. Also get them to blog about what they’re doing so people can follow them.

Strong characters are a big plus – The media wants people who allow us to go inside of a situation and observe it. Also offer a pre-interview if you can’t get the real thing – it allows them to get a sense of what’s possible.

Get rid of the corporate blah, blah, blah press release – It’s better to write releases in a journalistic way – use multiple sources and data (make sure it’s sourced). This way it may get picked up as is.

The role of PIOs is changing – With all the lay-offs, PIOs have to help journalists and take on more responsibility. The media wants partnerships, strong credentials, expertise, knowledge and often help with fact checking.

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