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10 tips for working with journalists

From Fran Abrams, Chief Executive of the Education Media Centre

I’ve spent most of my life working as a journalist, and I don’t feel particularly scary. So it came as a surprise to learn just how terrifying an encounter with the media can be for someone who hasn’t done it before.

Over the past couple of years I’ve spent a lot of time helping researchers to promote better awareness of their work via the media – and one of the most frequent questions I’m asked is: “How can I avoid getting misrepresented, or being trolled on social media?”

The short answer I give is that there’s no way to guarantee success. But if you talk to the right journalists, in the right way, at the right time, you’re much more likely to get your message across in a way you feel is fair and accurate.

There’s a longer answer, which involves a bit of time and work but ultimately can lead to success. So, here are my top ten tips on how you might start:

  1. Take advice

You’re not alone. If you’re in a university, its press office can help with support, contacts and media training. There are also organizations like the one I run, the Education Media Centre, which help connect academics to good, specialist journalists.

  1. Be strategic

Before you start, think about why you want to publicize your work, and what you want to achieve. Consider timing – approach journalists at a time when you think they’re likely to be interested – that is, when it’s topical.

  1. Don’t expect journalists necessarily to share your agenda.

Just because you think something’s academically significant, it doesn’t mean it’ll be a big story – journalists want to be surprised. Remember the maxim that ‘dog bites man’ isn’t news, but ‘man bites dog’ could be.

  1. Do your research

Listen to the radio, read the papers and websites where you’d like to see your work featured. Then make your pitch relevant to their interests.

  1. Try to give journalists some notice

A week is ideal for a daily news outlet; but if you’re approaching someone for a longer, more in-depth feature, more time is needed.

  1. Have a clear message; deliver it in plain English

If you’re writing a press release or emailing a journalist, use the kind of language you might use when describing your work to a friend – don’t use slang, but don’t use jargon either.

  1. Remember journalists are up against it

If you’re approached for a comment, you’ll need to respond within a few hours if it’s for a daily news outlet. And if you’re approaching them, remember they have hundreds of emails every day and very little time. So be short and to the point.

  1. Consider how much time you can devote

Even when you’ve been interviewed, there’s no guarantee anything will appear. It can be frustrating, but it’s very worthwhile when it works.

  1. Think about your comfort zone

If you’re nervous, take small steps. A blog post or some activity on Twitter can be a good place to start. If you’re worried about how an aspect of your work might be represented, say so.

  1. And finally…

Remember journalists are human – most of them want to get it right. If you feel you haven’t been treated fairly, take it up politely with the individual journalist first before moving up the chain of command if you really need redress. And don’t forget to say ‘thank you’ if you liked the report.

Want to find out more? Catch up with our recent Engaging with the Media webinar to hear more on what to consider when taking your research to the press, how to handle controversial topics and how to write an article for The Conversation.

Fran Abrams has more than twenty-five years’ experience of working as a specialist journalist in the quality national media. She was an education correspondent with most of the major broadsheet newspapers, worked as Westminster Correspondent at the Independent and spent fifteen years as a reporter on BBC Radio 4’s investigative ‘File on 4’ program. She has written five factual books, including one with Routledge.

Fran grew up in Stockport and completed a sociology degree at the University of York before training with the Birmingham Post and Mail group. She went on to be Education Correspondent at the Sunday Times, the Sunday Correspondent, the Times Education Supplement, the Sunday Telegraph and the Independent. In 1996, she became a lobby correspondent and was later promoted to be the Independent’s investigative Westminster Correspondent. From 2000-2015, she combined working as a reporter on File on 4 with writing education and other features for The Guardian as well as a series of books. In 2007, she won the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Journalist Fellowship.

Since November 2015, Fran has been Chief Executive (and since January 2017 joint Chief Executive) of the Education Media Centre. She still writes regular education features for the Guardian.