Social Media, Personal Integrity, and News Value Cited as Keys to Communicating Science

Communicating science in the era of 24-hour news cycles now requires Twitter and other social media tools, but positive working relationships with reporters and real news value remain essential, too, experts said 15 November.

"Twitter has become basically another major newspaper for me," said Robin Lloyd, news editor of Scientific American (@robinlloyd99 on Twitter), who took part in a seminar organized by EurekAlert!, the science-news service of AAAS. "A lot of science writers are on it, so it's a really great place to develop relationships and see what's going on in our field. Don't let anyone dismiss Twitter to you for that reason. For our goal as science communicators, it's massively important."

Only 16% of U.S. adults use Twitter, according to the Pew Research Center's latest report on U.S. news habits, whereas two-thirds use Facebook. Lloyd said, however, that Twitter users include many science journalists as well as Scientific American's "most loyal and super-interested" audience. By comparison, she added, "Facebook users are [generally] not loyal readers, but they will generate a lot of page views."

The EurekAlert! seminar at the National Press Club, "Communicating Science Across Online and Social Media," drew 175 public information officers and other attendees from across the country.

In his opening remarks, moderator Robert Lee Hotz, science writer for The Wall Street Journal (@leHotz), pointed out that social media offers "a spectacular opportunity" for anyone to communicate science news broadly. In 2012, for example, the landing of NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars generated 1.2 billion Twitter messages, 17.4 million Facebook hits, and 36.4 million webcast streams. During the actual seven-minute landing, 3.2 million viewers watched the event on UStream TV. The mission's Web site received 127 million page views, and the Twitter message announcing the landing was re-tweeted 72,000 times. "That's not bad for seven minutes' work," Hotz quipped.

Elizabeth Landau (@lizlandau), writer and producer for CNN.com, echoed Lloyd's comments about the importance of Twitter for getting the word out about science news, and for connecting with key journalists. Landau, who runs the @CNNLightYears Twitter account, urged public information officers to learn more about reporters' interests by checking the Twitter lists they follow, which can be found on the left-hand side of profile pages. "This is a way for you to see what `beats' journalists find important," she explained.

Landau also recommended the Science Writers' Linkedin group, which has some 6,200 members, and face-to-face networking events such as scientific conferences. "The AAAS Annual Meeting is actually one of the most valuable resources for connecting with people where press officers and journalists are in the same room together and they are all interested in learning about things and meeting each other," she said. "The [National Association of Science Writers meeting] is also a good place."

As social media becomes ever more important for communicating science, said James Gorman, science reporter for The New York Times (@jimgorman), journalistic standards remain critical, too. "The basic job both of us have is to tell important and interesting stories," he said, adding that it's "dangerous" to think only about page views. Gorman's news focus is on research forthcoming in peer-reviewed journals. He also looks for compelling research videos such as those on The New York Times' popular Science Take site that illustrate the scientific process without using interviews with "talking heads."

Hotz said, in fact, that the speed of modern communication puts even more pressure on public information officers to get the facts straight and to avoid hyperbole. "As you engage in social media, you're putting yourself and your institution more out there as a potentially trusted or untrusted source, so you have to pay attention to your own credibility," Hotz cautioned. "You are starting to have to follow some of the same kinds of journalistic values that we do because your Twitter message may get directly re-tweeted without any intervening filter, and if you make things up, that becomes news, that becomes entertaining, and if you exaggerate, all in a good cause, of course, you can find yourself in the middle of a very big, boiling pot of Twitter-hashtag soup."

Brandon Keim, freelance science journalist for WIRED.com (@9brandon) agreed, noting that news releases can now quickly go viral via news aggregation sites as well as EurekAlert! and social media. He urged public information professionals to take a journalistic approach to their work. "Think about what you're doing as a journalist would. This [news release] is a source document … really approach it as if that's going to be the statement of public record."

Press coverage should no longer be the primary metric for determining the success of outreach efforts, according to Keim. He said he finds relevant information in news releases "maybe a couple times a month," and two per year may turn into a story. He emphasized "the importance of building up a relationship with a journalist," both in person and via social media accounts, rather than e-mailing many news releases to reporters.

To better serve busy journalists, said David Freeman, senior science editor at The Huffington Post (@davyfreeman), news releases should include as much relevant information as possible, from Twitter handles and authentic-sounding quotes, to the scientists' contact information, images, and research videos. Experts should be primed to take reporters' calls, too. Like Gorman, Freeman said that "talking head" videos don't work for The Huffington Post, but multimedia stories based on footage of field or laboratory research can draw online audiences. The key to writing a successful news release, Freeman said, "is to be accurate, obviously, but to be playful … in a way that engages people broadly." Both Freeman and Lloyd warned press officers to avoid writing dull headlines, particularly any that use the phrases, "Scientists find," or "Researchers show."

Before contacting a reporter at a monthly publication, said Corey Powell, editor-at-large for Discover (@coreyspowell), communicators should think about news distribution on "multiple scales," from an instant Twitter message, to a blog written in a day, to a scientist-authored print feature that might take months of work. Powell pointed to a 2013 news release, "Hubble spots azure blue planet," as one that worked across a variety of media formats and time scales. By pulling a quote from the top of the news release, Powell said, he was able to craft a Twitter message that generated massive pickup: "Hubble spots another blue world," his viral tweet said, "one where 'it rains glass, sideways, in howling 7000 kilometre-per-hour winds' http://t.co/5Imua6QJqm." The news release worked because it offered "such an instant and visceral image," he noted.

Exciting images and video go a long way toward selling a science story, speakers said. Today, Gorman noted, researchers routinely capture video of animal behavior or brain cells firing, or they create animations to illustrate key phenomena. All of those materials can be turned into useful research videos that might help to raise public awareness of the importance of the work. Speakers at the EurekAlert! event suggested placing institutional logos at the end and not the beginning of videos.

How can public information officers reach reporters who may be inundated by information all day, every day? "Please don't call me," Landau and all other speakers said. "We just don't have time." Follow her on Twitter instead, or look for her at key scientific and science-writer conferences.

Speakers also emphasized the need for news pitches to be timely. At a monthly magazine, Powell said, he ideally wants to hear about possible forthcoming journal articles while they are still under review. The New York Times can respond to news releases distributed under embargo, a week or two before journal articles appear, said Gorman. Hotz cautioned press officers to avoid sending him e-mails with links to "all the other stories that everybody else has already written on the topic." Lloyd and Keim both asked public information officers to "be present" in the science writing community, and to develop trust with reporters before trying to pitch stories.

Aside from Twitter and Facebook, Powell said he uses Reddit to push stories out, though not to find them. Lloyd said she still relies on RSS feeds, but she organizes that information using tools such as Pulse, Flipbook and Feed.ly.

The 15 November event was EurekAlert!'s sixth professional development and networking seminar for public information officers. Established in 1996 by AAAS, EurekAlert! is now an editorially independent science-news source, serving some 9,800 registered reporters worldwide.