Working with academics: 5 things I’ve learned

If someone asked me to list the perks of my job, ‘working with academics’ would be one of them. Yet if someone asked me to list the downsides of my job, ‘working with academics’ would also most likely be one of them. As enthusiastic as they can be particular, researchers can inspire and frustrate in equal measure.

Yet academics are at the heart of our press releases; without them, we would have no content to write about.

So I thought I’d share some reflections on working with academics from my first year as a Press & Media Relations Executive.

1. Academics are passionate people.

You will struggle to come across a more enthusiastic group than academics. Attend a poster session at any conference and this will quickly become apparent, as a brief chat becomes a half-hour discussion. Having spent years buried in libraries, labs or archives in pursuit of their research goal, academics care for their research as they would their own child. And this is undoubtedly a good thing – conveying their enthusiasm in a press release with a strong quote or image can help to secure strong media coverage. But it can also be a drawback, as my next point explains….

2. Their enthusiasm needs direction!

Academics’ passion for their subject can sometimes cloud their expectations of its media potential. As hard as it can be to persuade them otherwise, not all topics are suitable for the mainstream media; some are just too niche for international press campaigns. One author I was in touch with was convinced that her paper would make front page news – even using those words.

That is not to say that no-one is interested in the research, only that a national daily newspaper is perhaps not the best possible readership for this type of content. Targeting more specialist news outlets can be a more appropriate alternative. When paired with social media promotion, it encourages the research to be shared extensively among researchers and professionals within the field of study. And sometimes, simply letting the research gain organic reach within the academic community can be the most appropriate course of action.

Managing expectations, and offering alternative promotional strategies, can help to form a successful working relationship.

3. Their idea of ‘success’ is not always the same as ours.

Article views, downloads, and citations are the principal success measures for academics. This is understandable, as future research funding can depend on these figures. Yet for a press team, these measures are more a welcome by-product of our activity than the main focus. Our primary goal is to secure accurate coverage in a range of quality news outlets, preferably made up of international and regional organizations. This should encourage wide readership of the original paper, which should, in turn, encourage more downloads and citations.

But this can be hard to influence, as not all journalists include a link to the research in their stories. And even if the link is included, it is impossible to predict whether the news outlet’s readers will then go on to read a potentially dense academic paper.

So for us, it is more about securing broad, balanced, and accurate coverage. Rather than be at odds with the researcher’s aims though, this is a way of getting far greater attention to their research than would otherwise have been the case, sharing it beyond the confines of academia to reach more general audiences. The result – raising the profile of the academic, their institution, funder, the journal and the publisher – represents a satisfying outcome for all.

4. They welcome questions.

Never be afraid to question the expert! Even if you’re dealing with a renowned professor, there is always room to dig deeper into a piece of research. If there’s a finding I’m not sure about – an unintelligible table, a mysterious percentage – I’ll ask. And I’ve not once come across a researcher who’s been unwilling to expand on their results. After all, it is in their interests as well as ours that their research is portrayed accurately and fairly in the press. Delving deeper to make sure no stone is left unturned is essential in helping to prevent simplistic or sensationalistic media coverage.

5. They are better at engaging with the media than they realise.

For some academics, the idea of sharing their research with international public audiences is a daunting one (at Taylor & Francis, we created a media guide to help address this issue). But the reality, at least from my experience, has been very positive. Those I have dealt with have always been able to translate their findings into layperson’s terms. When asked for quotes or, even better, live interviews, the researchers I have dealt with have proven adept at communicating the significance of their studies to non-specialist audiences.

Take as an example my first ever press release looking into the gender gap in venture capital funding. The BBC’s World Service requested a live interview with the lead author. Not only did she get her message across very effectively; she even got up at 5am local time to do so! This helped to bring greater awareness to a timely and important subject, and the paper has continued to draw in public attention this year – almost a full year after the original release.

Getting academics to think about the impact of their research, asking ‘who should care about this and why?’, has proven effective in coaxing out a study’s wider relevance.

While not exhaustive, I’m sure many of these points will resonate with you. Forming successful working relationships with academics, pairing our eye for a story with their specialist subject knowledge, will help us to continue to put together compelling press campaigns for the benefit of the wider public.

Have you had similar experiences, or come across something completely different? Join me on the EurekAlert! PIO Forum for more discussions.