As a communications firm dedicated to health and medicine, promoting science is a major pillar of our work. Over years on The Reis Group team, I have worked to generate national media coverage for dozens of journal articles and scientific abstracts. My background includes a master’s degree in public health, which taught me the importance of a critical eye when reviewing any piece of research. Even studies from prestigious medical institutions conducted through the “gold standard” of randomized controlled trials may have significant limitations that could undercut the findings. As public relations professionals, we must be able to discern whether the research is both rock-solid and newsworthy, as well as important for our audience.
For example, a medical society client of ours recently sought publicity to promote research on a pain treatment for breast cancer patients. Our goal was to place one or two stories during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The treatment was novel—but not easily understood.
Translating the science
Our first step, as with any research we promote, is to understand the science. This means getting a firm grasp on the goal of the research, the methodology used, and most importantly, the findings and their implications. Not everything is worthy of a news release. The keys to attracting attention from sharp science reporters: Make sure the sample size is large enough, the findings are statistically significant, and the methodology is solid. If you’re not careful and accurate, you risk very bad outcomes for you and your client.
What does your audience need to know?
It’s not enough to promote a study’s primary outcome. The media (and your audience) won’t be interested unless you convey the real-life significance of the findings.
When brainstorming the all-important headline, make sure you check with the researchers to make sure they agree with your approach. In your eagerness to push for a newsworthy angle, you might inadvertently badly exaggerate the meaning of the findings. Your researchers can make sure you are not erroneously hyping a “miracle treatment.” Even one careless word choice can misrepresent findings, and your credibility—and your client’s—could take a catastrophic hit.
Demonstrate impact through stories
“Human interest” remains a very powerful tool to generate media interest when promoting science. If the researcher can produce a study participant willing to share their story, it can be a huge factor in attracting media coverage. We profiled a breast cancer patient who was a mother of two young children, a wife, and a professional ballerina. She was forced to give up her career and was unable to take care of her children because of excruciating pain following her double mastectomy. Nothing she tried helped, including multiple surgeries and opioids. She had joined a clinical trial we were promoting, and the treatment helped her immensely. She was so grateful that she wanted to share her story so that other women might find the same relief.
Telling her story was the key to placing an article on the TODAY Show’s website: Post-mastectomy pain made her feel ‘on fire.’ Nerve freezing offered relief. The reporter interviewed both the patient and our researcher. The article highlighted the ground-breaking findings. This prominent national placement made our client incredibly happy. Without our showing how research impacted an everyday person, we would never have drawn national attention.
Promoting science has always been a vital part of the public discourse. But now, more than ever in the age of social media, we must make sure that the information and interpretation we promote to the media is both accurate and crystal clear. It is exciting and rewarding to succeed, but it can be devastating to fail.