Sunday, June 28, 2009

coaxing turtles into media interviews

It's the first rule of media relations: The biggest barrier to communicating your research, trends, or news is whether the source decides to participate. You may have a great story and reporters willing to cover it, but if the source decides to hide within her shell like a turtle, that story doesn't have much chance of success. That's why many of us are reading "No Turtles: Faculty-Media Relations," with a sense of familiarity. In it, Michael C. Munger, who chairs political science at Duke University describes the syndrome:
So whether it's "I'm not good enough" or "I'm not paid enough," faculty members turn into turtles. They draw their heads and limbs inside a protective shell and won't come out. If they do poke their heads out briefly, they embarrass themselves because they have no mental framework for media relations.
No one mulls this issue more than the communicators trying to put experts together with reporters, but even their best efforts may not be enough. In a recent blog post, Joe Bonner, Rockefeller University's director of communications and public affairs, highlighted this passage from Munger's essay:
Even the most outwardly focused campus news service will fail to bring faculty members out into the spotlight unless they are trained to deal with reporters and are rewarded for it.
"But how do you get reluctant faculty interested in practicing in the first place?" Bonner asks -- and it is the critical question for communicators tasked with carrying out the training and coaxing of experts. He says, "the key to getting scientists comfortable with the idea of communicating with reporters and the public at large is to get them early, while they are in graduate school or working as postdocs and before they've become junior faculty members."

I agree with that--any trainer will tell you it's easier to learn public-speaking and media-interview skills early, before you develop bad habits, fears and firm opinions about why it's not worth your time. (Put another way, you'll have less to un-learn if you learn early.) And it's also true that more's needed just to make the training possible. Here are some tactics I've used in a variety of settings to coax experts out of their shells and into training:
  • Gently promote the coverage others are getting: I say gently because--especially with faculty experts--the appearance of self-promotion often creates more problems than opportunities with their peers. But if you update your experts about good coverage, you can convey, over time, that interacting with reporters is valued (and build up some competition). Think internal, think water-cooler, and physically post it where it can be seen and discussed, or circulate a one-page report. My favorite was a one-pager called "Got You Covered"--a simple letterhead underscored that this would be a regular report, and let my communications team compile a few bullets each week highlighting especially good coverage.
  • Recruit some allies. I'll never forget the time I got a tour from a university media relations rep. At the time, I worked for a major scientific society, and we stopped to see a scientist active in the society--who confided that she routinely threw away messages to call reporters, to the horror of my host. "Does the society offer some training?" she asked. We did, and I promptly signed her up. Likewise, you should recruit allies at professional societies or other organizations in which your experts are active--and where they may get recognition they prefer for media efforts. Then work with your allies to reinforce those opportunities.
  • Listen for what motivates them. I've seen research scientists run from media interviews--until they needed a donor, a technology transfer partner to take the research into the commercial sector, or some other motivator that had nothing much to do with the goals of the communications office. (In my favorite example of this, a researcher with a great new product was more excited by her coverage in Packaging News than in the Wall Street Journal--but we made sure she got both.) Ask your experts what they want, what would help them, and listen for the chance to motivate them into media interviews. The gratitude often means they'll respond again when you call.
  • Make it fun and easy. I love handing groups of people Flip camcorders. They're pocket-sized, cute and easy to operate, and those factors can help motivate your experts to get comfortable with a camera. Why not issue one to a few experts at your organization and ask them to spend just 10 minutes a week recording some insights they might share with a reporter--then email it to you for internal feedback? You might wind up with some useable material and your expert will be developing a comfort level with communicating on video.
  • Share training opportunities. Repeat. It takes more than one annoucement that training's available to convince otherwise busy, skeptical or shy experts to practice. So cultivate not only your home-grown trainings, but those offered by others...over and over again. Sooner or later, the message will sink in. Check out the "Communicating Science" workshops offered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for scientists and engineers, ask professional societies and local groups, and, for women experts, you might suggest that they enter my Eloquent Woman blog's contest to win 15 weeks of free public-speaking training (and a free Flip Mino HD camcorder) if they enter by July 31, 2009.

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