Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

No such thing as perfect timing

13 Dec 2018
Despite our best efforts, sometimes it can be impossible to penetrate the news. How can we manage expectations and plan for success?
By Ruth Francis

Right now, my inbox is so full of updates from academics about publication dates for papers we plan to promote that I’m struggling to keep up. This often happens toward the end of the year when journals are trying to finish as many papers as possible.

While I’m in the lucky position of having several newsworthy research articles to promote, I know there is only so much room for these stories in the media. With this much coming through at once, some of them will not get as much coverage as they would have even a few weeks ago -- or in a few weeks time. But, the research publication is a news peg that reporters and communicators are used to and often delaying a press release risks its being perceived as old news. 

Extenuating factors affect coverage, and this is a truth we should acknowledge. Sometimes we can have a fascinating story, a media-friendly researcher, excellent quotes and eye-catching images, but a bigger story breaks and no one hears our news. 

We can try to reduce external factors. For example, if we have some control of a publication date, or are not working with newly published research, then it is wise to not send a media release during the Nobel Prize announcements or a world cup final. Spreading mailings throughout the month where possible, rather than bunching them all together, also helps increase chances of coverage. 

In my first job, we used to time a press release every year for the holiday period as news tends to be quieter and journalists are looking for stories. Since then, I’ve heard people suggest this is a poor time to try to get coverage, as news outlets are working with a skeleton staff, and a lot of content, such as end-of-year round-ups, is created in advance. Personally, I’ve had a lot of success with targeting releases during quiet periods. 

Journal publication dates can end up coinciding with the most recent natural or manmade disaster and the release gets little attention. Even when this happens, we can still salvage our efforts and find ways to generate interest. Try editing press releases into news for an institutional or funder website, create video or slideshows of images for social media, or do Q&As with academics to communicate their excitement directly to a keen audience. 

There’s no way to predict if timing will be perfect or terrible – the best we can do is know that sometimes we will have to get creative to boost our research news above the noise.

Ruth Francis is a communications expert with more than 17 years of experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.