iTALK: Speaking SciComm – a Panel Discussion about Public Relations

By Amy Duncan, Goldfish Consulting

Distill why the general public should care about your story and pitch reporters repeatedly until you get a reply. So says a panel of public relations experts who spoke at “iTALK:  Speaking SciComm – a Panel Discussion” hosted by LaunchBio and SDBN on October 16, 2018 at Genesis at Campus Point. Moderated by Neil Thompson of Teach the Geek, the panel was organized to help local life science entrepreneurs understand how journalists decide which science stories to report and how they can attract attention to their company.

The discussion was led by Josh Baxt, Freelance Science and Healthcare Writer, Carmella Remillard, Senior Medical Writer at Hologic, Inc., Jessica Yingling, Ph.D., President of Little Dog Communications, Heather Buschman, PhD,  Senior Manager, Communications and Media Relations, UC San Diego Health, and Brittany Meiling, reporter, San Diego Union-Tribune. The first half of the session addressed how the panelists broke into science communication. This summary covers the second half of the session, which covered how a company can use science communication to achieve specific goals.

What to Write About

A key function of public relations is to write press releases and send them to media with the hopes they’ll pick them up and write their own stories. Before writing, Dr. Yingling advises to first think about your goals, what you are trying to achieve, and who the target audience is. For a biotech company, their goals may be targeted towards the needs of investors, partners, employees, collaborators, or clinical trial recruitment. Dr. Yingling matches the communication goals to the goals of the media outlet. If you are targeting media that is writing daily news pieces, Dr. Yingling says to think about it in a daily sense. She says the “dailies” write on the four D’s:  donors (fundraising), deals, data, and drama. She tries to stay in the first three.

Where to Submit

Different media outlets favor different types of news. Dr. Buschman says it’s best to be targeted so you don’t become noise. For distribution services she subscribes to EurekAlert! run by The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She posts news releases there because it’s a go-to site for journalists who are interested to find what’s new and coming out in science-related news. If the news is of interest to other scientists, she will target trade media publications. Think Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News (GEN) or GenomeWeb. Dr. Yingling pitches very specific trades such as (alphabetically) BioCentury, BioWorld, Fierce, MedCity News, Endpoints, as well as GEN and GenomeWeb. “Each of those has their own particular take,” says Dr Yingling. “It’s about being able to match the news with the reporter.”

How to Pitch Reporters

Reporters can receive hundreds of pitches a day in their in-box. It can be very time intensive to read every pitch—and they often don’t. In order to get their attention, you need to hook the reporter right away—in a couple of sentences—with why they should care about your story. Reporters are writing for audiences that don’t know anything about your company or what you’re working on. “What needs to be right in the headline, and definitely through the bulk of the press release, is what matters to the outsider,” says Ms. Meiling. “Don’t ask yourself what you feel is interesting about your story. Instead ask yourself what your neighbor would think is interesting.” She adds that your “neighbor” doesn’t typically know anything about biology or chemistry. Even if you are writing for an industry journal, a lot of readers aren’t going to be specialized in your area or field. It needs to be interesting to all of us.

How to Reach Reporters

Most reporters probably prefer emails, but Ms. Meiling actually prefers phone calls because, as she points out, “I get so many emails and nobody calls me anymore.” She also likes to meet for coffee. She doesn’t expect every coffee meeting to turn into a story, but just enjoys learning about what’s going on in the community. She says the bulk of her ideas come from previous stories. “When you're reporting on a story, you get out and talk to a lot of people, go to their offices, they introduce you to people they know, maybe a small snippet of a conversation from one story will lead to a whole other story,” said Ms. Meiling. “Or I get introduced to people at events. I thought I’d be writing all the time. But I’m not. I’m networking all the time.”

Final Advice

If you have a news item that you think will fit with a particular media outlet, just keep bugging the reporter until they respond to you. Most reporters say, “Don’t bug me.” But Ms. Meiling says, “If you annoy us five times, by the fifth time we’ll look at it. If they don’t answer your three emails then give a phone call.”

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