How to work with your university press office
University press offices provide helpful and supportive services to academics across the UK, helping to communicate your research to the world.
We spoke to the press officers at Queens University Belfast and University College London to find out more about what they do and how you can get the most from your interactions with these professionals.
What does a university press office do?
Queens University Belfast [QUB] The press office helps to raise the profile and reputation of the university locally, nationally and internationally in line with the our strategic objectives.
Press officers work closely with the senior management team, academic and professional staff to preserve the reputation of the university.
The team offers a service for journalists from the print, broadcast and online media seeking information, expert commentary or guidance on all aspects of the university's work and activity.
Press officers also offer academics and researchers professional advice on how to communicate their research, build and manage their profile in the media and raise the profile of the university.
University College London [UCL] We actively promote the latest UCL research and key institutional stories to the wider world via the media.
Building strong relationships with journalists, we will advise and work with researchers to develop an impactful media strategy to ensure their work reaches their target audiences.
This could involve working with researchers to develop a press release or pitch, write thought leadership pieces or create other media assets. We will brief journalists, set up filming opportunities, support with messaging and work with communications teams in partner institutions.
The team responds to requests from journalists and producers around the world 24/7. We help journalists and producers by trying to understand their interests, needs and time pressures, and by finding the right UCL expert for their story.
We also support staff to pursue successful media engagement through media training.
What kind of stories work best?
[QUB] What works best are research stories that are new and unique, have an impact on society, a human story behind it or, at the other extreme, have some mind- blowing research or a quirky edge.
[UCL] Stories with a strong human-interest angle, that resonate with the reader and could affect their lives or behaviour, or call for a change in policy, can be highly effective.
Sometimes, the timing of a piece of research in relation to the broader news agenda, or on a controversial or high-profile topic, can mean it is picked up more widely. Research that has surprising or quirky results can also stand out in a journalist’s inbox.
We work collaboratively with press offices at international partner institutions. Their local expertise and networks can make a huge difference in raising the profile of a piece of research locally, where it could have the biggest impact (like this story on using an AI app to better diagnose HIV).
What are you looking for from researchers?
[QUB] We are interested in hearing about research that has been completed. Often we will announce funding for research programmes but what gets the best traction is when there are results to turn into a news story.
We are looking for facts that people outside the research area will be able to grasp. We work with our researchers, and any partner organisations, to ensure that we get all the key facts presented in way that will attract attention and understanding.
[UCL] A lot of advance notice ahead of key publication dates or significant milestones in a research project. This means we can read papers thoroughly, interview key stakeholders and liaise with funders, publishers and press offices at partner institutions. We will issue the press release in good time to the media under embargo or pitch it as an exclusive.
For a press release, memorable soundbites that avoid jargon or technical terms and explain clearly to a lay reader the significance of the research are best. Including additional content that can make the research more accessible to a wider audience - like high resolution images, videos (as in this story on the Antikythera Mechanism) on or case studies - is especially helpful.
Translating press releases into a local language can also increase the ‘reach’ of a story, and we’re always keen to know if a researcher has more than one language they’d be happy to engage with media in.
What are your constraints?
[QUB] We will always be up against other news stories so, even if a piece of research is newsworthy, it may get bumped by another news agenda. We try to time announcements to get the most out of them but have no control over the news of the day. It’s also important for researchers to be aware that their story needs to be pitched to the right platform, or news outlet, so that it stands the best chance of being treated in a suitable and positive way.
[UCL] Often, time. UCL’s research output is prolific, spanning every discipline, and the press office needs to prioritise the stories that will make the biggest impact in top-tier media. Press releases issued for immediate release or after a research paper has been published don’t usually get the same take-up by journalists.
What can you offer researchers?
[QUB] We offer academics and researchers professional advice on how to communicate their research, build profile in the media and raise the profile of the university locally, nationally and internationally. There are various ways we can do this and platforms we can use.
[UCL] We can help tease out the best news hook for your research – it might not always be your main finding – and promote your work to earn press coverage, in collaboration with international partners.
We can offer guidance and help prepare for interviews, and regularly run training sessions for UCL academics wanting to raise the profile of their work. This can be especially beneficial where research findings are likely to be controversial.
Where a story might not work for media, we can share content or put researchers in touch with communications colleagues around the university who can profile on UCL channels.
We can also help pitch op-eds to global publications such as The Conversation or the World Economic Forum Agenda blog – for example this one on global smartphone usage.
What's the best way for researchers to get in touch if they have an idea?
[QUB] We invite QUB researchers to get in touch with our team at [email protected]. We then issue a proforma to focus on the bones of the research so that we put together a communications plan.
[UCL] Our researchers can contact us direct at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/services-media/contact-us and also register on UCL’s Expert Database, which journalists use to find experts in a particular field, at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/cam/activities/media-relations/experts-register.
We also recommend contacting your local department or Faculty communications contact to discuss your idea, which means we can make the most of the many UCL channels available to profile your work.
Top tips for researchers
- Be clear what you want to say and how you want to communicate it, e.g. can you describe the value and impact of your research clearly and simply?
- Get in touch early with the media team and faculty communications colleagues about your research findings or ideas so that we have time to plan and maximise on any potential media coverage.
- Consider how you can make the most of working with communications and media colleagues at the partner institution you are working with. For example, by gathering great photographs, video footage or case studies from beneficiaries that can bring your story to life and could be offered to media.
- Look out for stories relating to your field in the media and how and where these are covered.
- If you think you’ve spotted a problem which you think could get picked by media and would reflect badly on the university, let us know as soon as possible.
- Question what you want out of any coverage. Sometimes a press release is a good option, but often the best way to reach people on certain topics is through other channels such as social media, a pitched interview, an article for an online platform or for an internal audience. We encourage researchers to discuss this with us so we can find the best fit.