Interesting seminar here this morning on the subject.

Some memes that came out of this (and a previous staff meeting):

  1. Most academic staff don’t see public/media communication as their job, and that’s a combination of being over-worked in the first place, not thinking we’re particularly good at it (we tend to use over long, over-qualified sentences :-), and not wanting to get into a fight with some nutter in honour of some spurious notion of balance.

  2. We (academics) need to remember the reality of the new cycle: most stories have a four-hour life expectancy, and most of them are sprung from event, and prepared in a matter of hours, if not minutes. For television and radio particularly, waiting to do a properly researched story would, in many cases, mean the story would never appear - bad quick information wins over good slow information!

  3. It’s important to remember that “show business” matters; an accurate story which is boring won’t be listened to (or read)! So, like it or not, if you want to communicate, you have to play by the “make it brief, make it interesting, and do it with panache” rules. (Oh no, see the second caveat above :-).

  4. (However, in the 24-hour news cycle, you might be able to negotiate a “serialisation” of your message into byte (pun!) size chunks - giving a reporter several stories - but you’d have to be lucky :-)

  5. Some survey of stories in the “quality US newspapers” (editor: no comment :-), suggested that 85% of the stories were founded on only one source, and often that source was a press release! (Gosh!)

  6. Prepare for interviews, but be available. Saying “Not now, I’m available in an hour” might mean you’re not “used” … but if you’re going to be interviewed, spend at least ten minutes trying to work out how to get your message across. If it’s a soundbite interview, your message had better be in 45 words (or less if you have to deflect a spurious question “on-message”). If it’s a three-minute “radio-4-type” interview, it’d better be 2-300 words max (and be prepared to deflect several spurious questions “on-message”).

  7. Often a story/interview will go better if you take five minutes to send someone specific facts/figures in a few bullets in an email - it might well get them “on-message” and asking about the right things!

And the bottom line, for us climate scientists: As Edmund Burke said

All that's necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.

And we are, most of us, funded by the public (one way or another), to do the right thing for the public … a bit like open data really I suppose!

(Update: I should have noted the seminar speaker was Jon Barton of Clarify Communications.)