Opinion

When it comes to scientific research, it isn’t just the “weird” studies that get noticed, says Duncan Smith, managing director of Mindlab

Date: 08 May 2012 16:40

You can almost hear the editorial sighs as yet another survey lands on the reporters’ desks. Don’t get me wrong, surveys can and do make the headlines. They are vital for obtaining those regional stats so essential when selling the story into local media.

The problem is there are so many of them fighting for limited editorial space. One other option is to use PR-orientated science studies. I believe that these are massively underused, and have the ability to add credibility, depth and media interest to the right campaign. Such stories often have a visually exciting statement. The visual element is, of course, the key to success on TV and the internet where B-roll footage can attract an audience of millions.

So what role does real science – by which I mean that undertaken by professional scientists – play in an effective PR campaign?

Experience suggests two roads to success.

This first is what one might call “weird science“. Quirky studies that use science to validate water-cooler topics that go viral. As an example take the Rocky biscuit rebrand for Clarion Communications. Taking the astonishing fact that some 500 people a year attended A&E with biscuit-related injuries and 800 biscuits later there’s a mathematical formula for calculating the danger of biscuits. The story made over £1 million in coverage, plenty of branded broadcast coverage including Chris Evans on radio 2. Even Jonathan Ross chased a giant baseball bat wielding gingerbread man around the studio on his BBC1 Friday show.

The second type of study is more serious without losing the newsworthy elements. For example, research into the cognitive benefits of using visual mapping software over traditional office platforms such as email. This study conducted for Mindjet via Brands2Life secured filming on BBC Click and Channel 4 news and an extensive report by the BBC technology of business reporter Fiona Graham.

But how do you find sufficiently media-savvy researchers? There are academics happy to conduct a study for a PR study and provide a report in language everyone can understand. Although you may have discovered, they are few and far between. Times are changing at universities however, as academics are expected to create links with the outside world making it easier to get a spokesperson.

Even with this change in attitude there can be a bureaucratic wall with ethics committees and university press offices. These challenges are not insurmountable, but these hurdles often mean that PR may only piggyback on studies that have already been completed. Outside academia there are commercial organisations that specialise in experiments and providing media trained spokespersons.

When commissioning a study, always ensure that you will have a story whatever the findings are – there’s no guarantee that the outcome of a study will be in the expected direction. A media savvy scientist can advise on this.

Just don’t try to compare everything to sex!

 

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