Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

Not always a press release

04 Mar 2019
Don't be afraid of using a variety of tools and strategies to spread the word.

By Ruth Francis

For some research, a press release is appropriate, but for other work promotion via your own website or social media can better engage the audience you want to reach. 

Sometimes research comes across our desk and it’s got news media written all over it! Perhaps the topic is currently popular in the news; maybe it’s dinosaurs or space, the things that fascinated us as children; and you can’t underestimate a cute animal story -- we previously interviewed a researcher whose paper on snow monkeys went far and wide.

Other times, a scientist will want to talk about work that is hot in their community but will never make mainstream waves, and these days we have multiple ways to ensure this too gets attention. 

Well-crafted material for a broad audience posted primarily on your own website can be a hit with readers. Don't just take my word for it. Shannon Shea, a senior writer and editor for the U.S. Department of Energy, recently explained that her office uses their own website to tell long-form stories about how science happens. Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2019 meeting, Shea said that many people come to their website to find out more and they trust the source, often more so than news reporting.

At the same event, Sarah Collins of the University of Cambridge discussed how she uses social media to reach research communities, particularly Twitter where lots of scientists are already having discussions and engage with what the university posts. 

Social media can help spread the word by sharing releases or stories on your website. But it is also a prime space for tailored snippets of information, fun facts, beautiful images, videos or graphics that convey ongoing research, without the need for a full press release. I have found Twitter's fast pace makes it is a good place to try, tweak and amend tactics to see what works and what doesn’t. The great benefit of social media is the ability for your audience to respond, so you can see who is interested and what topics might be worth following up with more content.

To maximize your efforts and spread your news farther, try getting the agencies that fund your organization's research involved. You can reach out directly when you are highlighting research they fund and offer to have them share the materials on their website or social channels. Mentioning them in the story or tagging them in the post also means they are more likely to see and share. 

Some stories are going to be better told in pictures and videos. For example, Asia Research News worked with Hokkaido University to produce a 2-minute movie about single-celled organisms, for which Hokkaido scientists had excellent original footage that really showed viewers a world they can't normally see with the naked eye. 

Other research will work better with different formats. I’m a fan of a short and snappy interview with a researcher to find out a bit more about their work, add some context and engage readers with the bigger picture. 

“Engaging with the public sharpens academics minds on why they do what they do,” says Collins, and this is true in my experience as well. Whatever the platform, there are benefits in stepping back from the detail and thinking about the bigger picture. A well-rounded communications strategy will take all tools into consideration and judge which is best suited for the content. 

Ruth Francis is a communications expert with 20 years of experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.