13 October 2016

Writing your own press release

Posted by Shane Hanlon

Editors’ note: This post describes the experience of a scientist who was encouraged to write her own press release—with some great tips for those in the same situation. If you’re interested in sharing your work with the media, however, always check first with your Public Information/Press/Comms office to determine how they approach press releases.


Photo credit: University of Maine

By Skylar Bayer

I was really excited about my first Ph.D. dissertation paper being published and released this year. Not just because it meant a chapter of my thesis was done, but because I hoped my university would write a press release about it. I thought that because they had eagerly written about my storytelling events, and my TEDx talk, they’d jump at the chance to write about my research—and I thought they had to write it. I sent my published paper to our public relations contact who said she’d get around to it. After two months, I asked “Would it just be easier if I wrote the first draft?” and she said yes, after that she’d help me edit it.

And why not? Plenty of other scientists write their own press releases. I am the researcher who has put in all my time, energy, thoughts, heart and soul into this project. As a result, I think that I spent maybe a total of two hours writing the first draft because I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I’m going to break down how I constructed the release based loosely on what I know about storytelling. One caveat – this particular press release is ~900 words and really you should be aiming for ~500.

  • Hook – I appeared on the Colbert Report once and everyone loves that show, so I started there, but with a twist. In this article I shed “a different light” on who I am as a dedicated researcher (not just a silly graduate student who by dumb luck ended up on a nationally syndicated show).
  • Context – The species I work with is part of a very important, lucrative fishery. I put information in about the Maine fishery because that’s part of the broader context of my research.
  • Quotes – Yes, I quoted myself. If you are being interview for an article over email, often reporters will take your answers verbatim and put quotes around it for their article. Why not put what you think is most important coming from you in quotes?
  • Personal journey – If there’s anything I’ve learned from storytelling it’s that people want to hear your personal story: your struggles (i.e. the difficult task of running up and down the river with all these scallop eggs!), your excitement and personal investment. It’s a wonderful thing be excited about the results of all your hard work!
  • Details – Try to pick “scenes” to paint with details. They should be important scenes that then connect to big picture. Examples from my press release include how eggs and sperm meet in the water column as well as the elaborate orchestration that goes into deploying and retrieving samples in a timely manner. Clear, simple analogies are extremely helpful as well.
  • Funding – My advisor reminded me to credit my funding in my press release. As a result of crediting my NSF GRFP my first year at UMaine, NSF picked up the release!
  • Colorful photo – When you are conducting research, make sure you get some photos of you doing your work. I was lucky enough to discover in a newsletter a photo of me working in the lab taken by the university photographers.
  • Links – FINALLY I would say if you have a website and other important information that you’d like to share, put it in as a link. You never know who might be reading the press release and wants to know more about your research.

Skylar Bayer is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Marine Sciences of University of Maine.