From the scientists to the media

This is where the press office steps in but how do they ensure their story gets good coverage?
23 August 2016

Interview with 

Dr Emma Smith, Science Information Manager at Cancer Research UK.


We're voyaging into the wonderful world of science.  So far we've hear how press and the mediascience works but not how it works itself into your ears. And so now, our first port of call is the press office at Cancer Research UK with Emma Smith...

Emma - So to get something from a scientific journal into maybe a mainstream newspaper - that's where we step in.

Graihagh - That's Emma Smith, she's a...

Emma -   Science Information Manager at Cancer Research UK.

Graihagh - Emma and our Kat Arney sat down for a natter about how research reaches us journalists...

Emma - Part of that falls down to our team and most of us are very highly trained scientists ourselves. A lot of us have PhD's, we're doctors, so we understand the basic fundamentals of research. That's not to say we understand every single scientific paper; I won't even pretend that, especially when it's something not in my field, but I can understand the fundamentals.

And then often what we'll do is we'll call the researcher themselves and ask them to explain it us us in their own words so we can get not only the information, the key findings but also some of the broader context: the background; how it fits in with other research; why it's new and what its potential importance could be.

Kat - So you've worked out the story, what's important, what you want to tell the public, then how does that get into the hands journalists, or say the Naked Scientists radio show, or a newspaper, or a website?

Emma - So one of the first things we do is write a press release and then the press team, this is their specific role, is to take that press release, the information in it and pitch it to journalists. So they'll send it to them via email or a quick telephone call to explain the key findings and try and get the journalists interested in the science.

Kat - So that's basically the process; you've got scientists doing the research; they write a scientific paper; you write a press release and then it gets into the papers. What other ways are there that organisations like Cancer Research UK, scientists, research funders - are there other ways that they're getting scientific information out to the public?

Emma - Of course, we don't just rely on our press releases. We've also got an award-winning blog which we use to explain scientific findings in a little bit more detail and with a bit more of a narrative than a paper can normally cover.

We also cover other people's research in the news feeds and we produce video content, animation - all this kind of extra material that helps explain the science that we're funding.

Kat - Increasingly, we're seeing a lot of organisations communicating directly with the public through things like social media, things like Facebook, Twitter, other social media platforms .Does Cancer Research UK do that and how do you do it?

Emma - We have Twitter accounts, Facebook account and, absolutely, people are very welcome to leave comments there and ask us questions. I actually think it has made a huge difference because, not only can people ask us things and get a quick reply but, also, other people who might be interested can see that question and see the answer, whereas before it was a much more closed system. So somebody, if they wanted to ask us a question, would have to write a letter, put it in the post, wait weeks for a rely and then nobody else would see it.

So I think this brings about a whole new level of transparency and communications with our supporters which, I think, is a great thing.

Kat - So you think people would be surprised to know how much you do work with journalists to get good stories out?

Emma - It's really important that we have very good relationships with journalists and also that they trust us, that trusting relationship is absolutely vital in the work we do. It can sometimes mean the difference between the journalist publishing or pulling a story and, very often, they will use Cancer Research UK as that balancing voice; the voice of expertise to give a balanced argument and to bring some fact and some truth into maybe an otherwise slightly exaggerated piece.

Kat - What's the worst story you've seen - what the one that made you absolutely slam your head on the desk and go... Really? They're saying this?

Emma - There have been so many - that's a hard call. I think one of my favourites was "going to the toilet in the night gives you cancer." And, actually, it was interesting research about circadian rhythms, and disrupting sleep patterns, and what effect that has on your hormones and chemicals that your body produce. Somehow it got turned into giving you cancer, which is always one of my favourites.


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