What to do before a reporter calls…

So you have a snazzy new result and you want to share it with the world? There are plenty of reporters out there looking for a good story.

Interactions with the press can lead to good things – recognition by your institution, your department and even funding agencies. But there is risk involved — interactions with reporters can be problematic if the story they tell isn’t one you like.

In the best cases, stories are a collaboration between scientist and reporter. Here are 10 tips on how to foster productive press interactions.


  1. Work with your institution’s public relations staff.  They can help you prepare.
  2. Ask for the major theme and angle of the article.
  3. Ask for the interview questions in advance.
  4. Anticipate misconceptions.
  5. Write down short sound bites and talking points.  Stick to them.
  6. Test communication ideas on novice audiences.
  7. Be careful of what you say – chopped quotes can come across terribly.   Don’t ramble or an offhand comment may be the quote that takes the prime spot.
  8. Ask for permission to check your quotes before publication.
  9. Be ready with images to share and let reporters know how they can use them.
  10. Be prepared for short turnaround times.

This last point is important. Some interviews have to be arranged and conducted within 48 hours. Other times you may work with a reporter over weeks or months, but still need to respond quickly to the initial contact.   If you want to work with the press, you should be ready before they call.

7 thoughts on “What to do before a reporter calls…

  1. I have had good success with media, but I do check in with the University PR office just to give them a heads up. Sometimes the newspaper picks up something off the University webpage/announcements and wants to expand on that.

    Success: Had a community survey link and background story publicized which led to over 900 responses. I don’t think we could have received that many without the local newspaper stories. We also had a story in a local lifestyle magazine. I was able to see drafts before they went live, so that was great.

    Not so much: The newspaper wanted to do a story on a research project that was in data collection. I was hesitant and said they could talk about the collaboration and not the results because we did not want to compromise data collection. So, that story didn’t happen,

  2. #8 is not something that many major publications would comply with, just FYI, especially if you’re asking to know which quotes they chose to include in the piece. and #2, they may not have an answer on the ‘angle’ until they interview folks. especially if it’s about the significance of a recent finding, reporters will often interview one of the academics involved – but also 1-2 people NOT affiliated with the project (but still in the field) for an ‘outside’ perspective. so I’d second all the recs on there about preparation, so that you are communicating clearly and efficiently (long quotes will definitely be chopped) — don’t start with assumption that reporters/press are intending to misconstrue your words or misrepresent your work.

  3. In follow up to squirrelyred, yes, #8 is generally something that is a big no-no (even though as a scientist it may seem logical to us, that is considered inappropriate if not unethical to most journalists, even science journalists), and also #3 is often something that is just “not done” by outside journalists, although that could be something you can work out with your institution’s own press/outreach/PR office- especially if you’re crafting a press release in the form of an interview.
    And #10 is often really important. I mean, a turnaround time of zero. I’ve had my research generate some press interest in the past, and often you’re lucky to have an hour or two’s lead time, if any at all, when the reporter calls you out of the blue for Big Newspaper X or Press Agency Y, it’s either talk to them right when they cold-call: or, no story. This can also be problematic if/when your institution requires you to file paperwork and get advance permission for any press contacts/interviews: it’s often just not possible, realistically.

  4. Some great advice here. Agree with some of the other commenters…from a journo’s perspective, #3 rarely happens, especially with quick radio interviews. And #8 is ideal for the scientist, but again will pretty much never happen for mainstream media, especially when a quick turnaround time is involved.

    • I agree that there is not guarantee for 3 or 8, but I have had some success even on fairly tight turnaround (1-2 days), so it is worth asking if there is time.

  5. It would be nice if we could check the headline before publication – I get really mad when I read misleading, if not totally inaccurate, headlines written by sub-editors who were not “in” on the interview.

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