Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Out of the Lab & Back – Insights on science media coverage

Boston Business Journal’s BioFlash, MIT Technology Review, STAT, Xconomy – go-to science and technology publications with established local presences and a collective readership stretching near and far – assembled representatives for a power-packed panel at JLABS’s (Johnson & Johnson Innovation) “Out of the Lab and Into the Newsroom.” The cast of journalists intended to shed light on media relations for the area’s mission-driven science community, which is characteristically so laser-focused on forging new frontiers of human knowledge that they could admittedly use a reminder about the merits of communicating their science to the general public.

We were situated atop the major fault line of Kendall Square; the epicenter of life sciences and technology operations. The majority of the crowd seemed to be communications professionals eager for tips on how to get media coverage for their constituents. Scientists themselves seemed to be sitting this one out; and although the lab is difficult to abandon, knowing how to communicate a scientific breakthrough is a skill worth having.

To the biomedical community, it should come as no surprise that journalism, like all professions, has its share of jargon. There’s spin, pitching, the beat, embargos, etc. These terms carry a great deal of weight, and understanding their meaning, through the lens of a journalist, can be a useful primer for our approach to media relations:

  • Pitching is where you let your science shine. An effective pitch takes 10 words to explain the novelty and impact. “Start with the end of the story first – for medicine, that’s the benefit to patients” advised Rick Berke, Executive Editor for STAT, a veteran of the field having held previous posts at Politico and The New York Times. The last thing you want to do is pitch a reporter “a solution they can’t understand for a problem they’ve never heard of,” explains MIT Technology Review Biomedicine Editor, Antonio Regalado. When considering the complexity of scientific advancement it might be hard to imagine boiling your work down to 10 words – but it’s a must if you want your science to get out of the lab. The panel’s advice: remain high-level and limit the technical terms in your pitch. You’ll know if you’ve done your job when you get a question in response, prompting you to dive a little deeper into the science. 

  • Spin is something you want to limit – it equates to selling. Although, it’s important to be persuasive, it’s a balancing act, as nearly all of the panelists remarked on having an aversion to over-promotion. 

  • The beat refers to a journalist’s parameters for reporting, i.e. their theme and target audience. Each publication and reporter is different, so do your homework and tailor your pitch to their preferences. 

  • Embargos dictate to reporters what to say and when to say it, and typically denote an understanding of exclusivity, but not always. In a practical sense, they are a potential remedy for keeping confidential information from leaking prematurely. I learned, some publishers will not accept terms for an embargo on their reporting, and it is probably good to know in advance where a media outlet stands on the use of content embargos.

Recognizing that effective communication is imperative to the advancement of science, the B-BIC Skills Development Center (SDC) has placed it center stage in this year’s commercialization curriculum. This fall we’ve already held workshops on presentation skills, elevator pitches and uses of PowerPoint. In the spring, we’ll continue with opportunities to improve your communication through use of data visuals, pitch coaching, and media training through our fourth installment of the Commercialization Apprenticeship Panel Series. As always, the SDC YouTube Channel serves as our video library for all previous offerings.

So just how important is communication to the advancement of science? Melissa Marshall, one of this year’s instructors for the B-BIC Skills Development Center’s series of communications workshops, puts it provocatively – “science not communicated, is science not done.”

Another way to think about it: Does a scientific advancement confined to the lab, make a sound (have an impact)? It’s a question worth considering.