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What are some guidelines and best practices for PR statements and releasing a project summary to the general public? My first tendency is to always shorten the project summary, reduce the length of sentences and use more "crisp" words. But what else?

Does anyone have any pragmatic/practical/ advice and is there any sort of tool out there aside from the likes of MS Word readability stats that gives you suggestions to what to change?

EDIT: Came across this tool today which is inspired by XKCD (what is not?):

CAN YOU EXPLAIN A HARD IDEA USING ONLY THE TEN HUNDRED MOST USED WORDS? IT'S NOT VERY EASY. TYPE IN THE BOX TO TRY IT OUT:

http://splasho.com/upgoer5/

There should be something on these lines available to help with simplifying the language for instance (perhaps with 5000 words rather than THE TEN HUNDRED which is very limiting).

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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Talk to someone at a media relations, public relations, or press office at your university. Most universities will have folks who work in this area; they are the experts and have a ton of experience, and you should take advantage of them. They will likely be glad to help.

Here are some tips that I have learned from public relations folks:

  • Identify your message. What's the takeaway lesson? Can you write it in one short sentence, in a form understandable to the average person on the street? Take a lot of time to craft this carefully. Then, your entire press release should be centered around supporting this message.

  • Look for three facts or points that support the message. Numbers and statistics are very powerful.

  • Stay on-message! I cannot emphasize this enough. Everything you talk about should be focused on your message. Avoid the temptation for digressions or tangents. Yes, you are a witty raconteur and can wax on enthusiastically for hours about your work, but this is not the place for it. Avoid unnecessary details; give a spare answer that provides just enough for folks to understand the message.

  • Yes, I know that you and your fellow researchers are fascinated by all of the details of your experimental methodology, the alternative hypotheses you considered and rejected, the details of why your finding is correct, your calculations, and so on. Sorry, but the average person on the street doesn't care. Your top priority is to explain your bottom-line finding, why the average person should care, and maybe a teeny bit of something to give some intuition about why your finding is true (enough to make it sound plausible to an average person).

  • Edit ruthlessly. You want as many eyes on it as possible, and ideally people who are not involved with your project. Lean heavily on your press office.

  • In many universities, the press office will help you draft a press release. They'll talk to you informally, ask you a bunch of questions, and then work with you to write a press release. If they're available to do it, grab the opportunity; it can be very helpful.

  • Brainstorm a list of about 10-20 questions that you expect reporters might ask you. Next, for each question, draft a candidate answer. Your answers should be concise (at most a few sentences) and simple; and, the chance to throw in an analogy or fact or figure can help, too. When you are talking to a reporter on the phone, have this list in front of you. This way, when they ask you a question, you can refer to the list and give your honed, crisp answer -- or at least, you have it to refer to if you need it. The reporter will never know.

  • Remember that the purpose of talking to a newspaper reporter is not just to educate them about your project. It is also to supply them with as many pithy quotes that they can use in their article. The more quotable you are, the more likely it is that you will be quoted. They will be listening for those great quotes. Take the opportunity to brainstorm in advance a few short quotes, and make sure to throw them into every conversation with every journalist. Read a bunch of newspaper articles in advance so you can see what kinds of statements tend to get quoted.

The public relations folks may also be able to offer media training. If you can get the chance to take a media training course, take it! This is especially important if you might be on TV, where you have to make every second count. There are some powerful but non-obvious techniques that they can teach you.

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It may be worth looking to see if your university has a press office. My university has a press office. They are happy to meet with research groups to talk about the press release process in general. They are also happy to edit copy to make it more likely to be picked up by the press. I believe they also are willing to work one-on-one and write the actual copy with you. They also have all the contacts and know how to get press-releases actually published in useful places.

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More than making the text crisp and understandable, you should work to make it relevant. Typically your "press releases" are in the form of articles for the research community, which understands why you find your work relevant; you're advancing the field. When dealing with the general public, you can make no such assumption. You have to state very explicitly why your work is important.

If you're having a hard time with this, I've had success looking back at the grant proposal which is funding my research. In some proposals, the introduction will have some overarching, practical goal, which will be easily understood by a layperson. Couch any achievement or research breakthrough in this context and the press (and the general public) will have a much greater significance for what you did.

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