If you’re a communicator for a medical, science or tech organization, pitching stories to the media can be a big challenge. Whether it’s the intricacies of climate change research, a medical breakthrough, or the release of groundbreaking data mining technology, it’s often tough to navigate from “thing that geeks are excited about” to “cool thing that reporters are excited about.” Read on for tips on pitching STEM stories to journalists.
1. ID the wow factor
Doctors, engineers and other STEM professionals are immersed up to their necks in jargon. If you ask a scientist why a research breakthrough is important, you’re likely to get an answer along the lines of “we have elucidated a previously unknown pathway for efficacy in vivo models” or something similarly arcane.
As a communicator, it’s your job to cut through the jargon to get to the human impact. How does this breakthrough affect real people’s lives? What is the problem that this discovery solves and how will the world be a better place as a result?
Once you nail down the impact, write it up into one tight, compelling sentence that you can use no matter where and how you pitch—as the hed for your press release, in a Twitter pitch or to kick off a phone call with a reporter.
2. Assume the reporter knows nothing
Most reporters don’t have a background in medicine, science or technology (if they did, they’d be working in those fields and making a lot more money). This applies even if the reporter regularly covers a tech or science beat. That’s why it’s important to make the information as easy to understand as possible.
You can’t pitch a med/science/tech story without using some jargon but always define your terms. My good habit: when writing a release, bold and italicize the first reference to any technical term and then immediately define it—either in parentheses or set off by commas. You can even incorporate a mini-glossary or FAQ in your press materials. Reporters will be grateful that you did.
3. Envision exactly how you want the story to appear
If you’re pitching to a newspaper, what kind of headline do you want to see? What about the lead paragraph? Are there potential sidebar stories, FAQ’s and graphics that can accompany the main article? What about follow up stories—is this potentially a series? If you’re pitching to TV, what compelling visuals can you offer? Who are the “real people” you can put in front of the camera to discuss how this med/science/tech breakthrough will make their lives better? Once you have your story concept nailed down, package the information for reporters so that it mirrors your concept—that will make it much more likely you’ll get the story you want.
4. Create visual content
Visual content is becoming more and more important in all news media, even traditional outlets like the New York Times. And yet in my experience a lot of PR/communications folks in the STEM realm treat visuals as an afterthought. But killer visuals will skyrocket your chances of placing a great story. Some tips for making your pitches more visually oriented:
- Hire a professional photographer to regularly snap photos of researchers/engineers at work so you have a portfolio of recent images on hand and ready to go as needed. And focus on the geeky details—things like petri dishes, lab mice, robots, lab tables and other tools of the trade are fascinating to people who don’t work in the field.
- Ask the med/science/tech staff to snap photos and video at work and share with you via social media. This strategy works better with younger staff members, fellows and students who are probably already doing this.
- Try apps like Vine to record quick video snippets that don’t require a big financial investment in expensive video editing but can add a lot of impact to stories published in online outlets like Buzzfeed.
- Think beyond straight photos and video. Create some funny animated gifs or hire a graphic designer to put together infographics, which are especially effective for illustrating complicated STEM stories.
5. Thoroughly prep your spokespeople
On most STEM related stories, your main spokesperson will be the lead investigator or the head of the design team. But it can be challenging for these folks to get out of the technical trenches to talk about their discoveries in a way that’s compelling for the average person. Make sure you spend plenty of time preparing this person to speak about their discovery for a lay audience. One amazingly effective tool: I ask spokespeople to pretend they’re speaking to a class of fifth graders.
It’s also a good idea to line up additional spokespeople who can add a more human dimension to the story. Some examples: a “real” person who will benefit from the research or a more junior member of the research/project team who can talk about the excitement of discovery, adding a compelling emotional angle to an otherwise dry story.