Roger Pielke Jr. is a political scientist based at the University of Colorado Boulder. He’s made some contributions to the literature on how scientists interact with policymakers. He’s also a contentious public figure who regularly criticizes climate researchers for their communications and advocacy work, particularly when it doesn’t comport with his preferred methods of political communication and advocacy.
This puts Pielke Jr. in a strange position: although he says he supports some climate and clean energy policies, his work is also regularly cited by right wing political actors who want to undermine the credibility of climate science and climate scientists. At the same time he hasn’t been able to convince climate researchers that his theories about the best way to do political advocacy are correct.
I’ve had a mild share of public disagreements with Pielke Jr. over the years. Unfortunately, he’s decided to make those disagreements personal and has acted uncharitably and unprofessionally toward me in response, accusing me of being part of a conspiracy meant to undermine his work as opposed to someone who simply disagrees with his views.
Over the past few years, Roger has:
Politics is contentious. So researchers who participate in it should be willing to disagree without being disagreeable. As I’ve written previously, dealing with misinformation directed at one’s professional relationships can be difficult. But it’s best to collect the misinformation in one spot, debunk it, and hold the people spreading the misinformation accountable.
So this is an attempt to practice what I preach. I truly believe Roger wants what’s best for the scientific community and society. I do, too. If we disagree about how to get there, so be it. But there’s no need for him to misrepresent my employment history.
Below, see some useful context as well as the correspondence Roger and I agreed to publish online before he stopped responding to me. I’ve also included his subsequent tweet in which he attempted to decontextualize our conversation and falsely accuse me of leading a cabal of climate scientists against him.
If Roger would like to correct anything in this post, he’s welcome to contact me at his leisure. I look forward to him eventually addressing the points I’ve raised and correcting his public misstatements about me.
March 2014 to July 2014: Pielke Jr.’s Tenure at 538
In March 2014, Pielke Jr. got a gig writing for Nate Silver’s data, politics and sports site 538. He used his first essay to go back to a favorite topic: extreme weather damage and climate change. This is not a uncontroversial topic and Pielke Jr. got pushback from scientists, climate writers and bloggers at Think Progress, the news and commentary arm of the Center for American Progress, and Forecast the Facts, (later ClimateTruth.org), an advocacy organization that was created to foster accuracy in climate coverage.
Pielke Jr. thought those criticisms were unfair and out of bounds, but he also responded to them with clearly out-of-bounds behavior of his own, writing to scientists and their bosses demanding they retract their public criticisms and noting in at least one case that their disagreements with his work might be “libelous.” That’s not a word people who work for media outlets usually throw around, especially in the United States, and 538 apologized to the scientists Roger emailed. Nate Silver, 538’s founder, told the Huffington Post: “We made clear that Roger’s conversations with them did not reflect FiveThirtyEight’s editorial values.”
Later, Pielke Jr. described 538 as being reluctant to publish more from him. Fast forward to 2016: Pielke Jr. found that he was mentioned in one of the emails hacked from John Podesta. The email is from a CAP employee telling Tom Steyer the founder of NextGen Climate (now NextGen America) and a board member at CAP about their efforts to hold 538 accountable for publishing Pielke Jr.’s article. If Steyer or Podesta bothered responding, it wasn’t in the hacked archives, but Pielke Jr. went on to write an oped in the Wall Street Journal based on this single email, comparing people who disagreed with him to “thought police.”
February 2015 – Publishing correspondence without my permission and making up a quote from me
In 2015, Pielke Jr. got a letter from Rep. Raul Grijalva asking about his financial ties to the fossil fuel industry. Pielke Jr. thought this was inappropriate, echoing other letters right-wing members of Congress have sent climate scientists demanding a variety of information from them. He approached me to ask what the Union of Concerned Scientists, where I worked for nearly a decade, was doing about it.
I sent him a note explaining what we were working on, shared a blog post from a colleague about the incident and asked him to stay in touch. I also told him university counsels usually don’t have researchers’ interest in mind when these incidents happen and that I’d advised other scientists in the same situation to obtain their own counsel. This is pretty standard political advice and indeed, the same advice I’d offered other researchers in similar situations. But Pielke Jr. would later accuse me of telling him to “lawyer up.” I pointed out to him that I never said that and, well, I don’t like when people put quote marks around things I didn’t say. Michael Halpern, my old colleague, pointed this out to Roger on Twitter and Roger responded by publishing my correspondence online without my permission.
My Employment History
Pielke Jr. Keeps Making Stuff Up About Me – Our Correspondence
In April 2017, I criticized Pielke Jr.’s over-reaction to scientists disagreeing with him. He accused me of being paid by CAP to attack him and blocked me on Twitter, so I wasn’t able to respond to this accusation at the time.
In February 2018, I commented on a thread with Pielke Jr. and a few scientists and journalists to point out Roger’s habit of accusing people who disagree with him of being politically biased. Roger accused me of trolling and asked me if I was “still on Steyer’s payroll” and then linked to an article about the Podesta email.
Roger failed to respond to me on Twitter, so I emailed him with a request that he stop accusing me of being paid to attack him. I also told him that given his habit of publishing correspondence from me online, that I’d like us to both publicly post our responses. Roger responded and agreed to publish our correspondence publicly.
You can see that correspondence on Twitter and reproduced here below. I think a fair-minded assessment of this exchange is that I am extremely blunt and direct with Roger. At the same time, I think the reader can see how Roger’s responses go from denial, to changing his story, to defensively telling me I can only complain to his university and, finally, abandoning the conversation and publicly accusing me of leading a conspiracy of scientists against him.
That latter point is quite interesting. One of the reasons I kept all this in a continuous thread on Twitter and am reproducing it here is that it’s very easy for misinformers to decontextualize information online. When I advise scientists on how to correct misinformation about their work, I urge them to keep a single thread going on a medium they control, whether a blog or their own Twitter feed.
Here is our correspondence, including links:
My initial note to Roger:
You recently made another inaccurate claim about me in response to my public criticism of your views. As you might have seen, I posted on Twitter to document these claims, including the time you made up a quote from me and two unfounded accusations about getting paid to attack you. I’d appreciate it if you could acknowledge having read my messages.
If you could refrain from spreading lies about me and my work, that’d be super nice, too. This is part of a pattern of unprofessional conduct and immature behavior on your part. Please stop. No one else is to blame for your professional failures but you.
Finally, given your history of publishing correspondence from me online without my permission, you can consider any interactions you have with me a matter of public record. I certainly will.
Sorry, I have not seen your messages. I muted you on Twitter after your latest unprovoked trolling. I’m giving mute a try rather than blocking these days for a select few enthusiastic folks on Twitter.
And yes, I am happy to consider our email exchanges on the record, such as is the case when one works in an official capacity as as a PR spokesperson (or for that matter, as a professor at a public university in Colorado).
Uh-huh. So you muted me after you implied I was being paid by Tom Steyer to attack you and posting a link that didn’t back up your claim. Or am I being paid by CAP? You can’t seem to get clear on that.
Anyway, lying about someone’s work, making up a quote from them and publishing their correspondence without their permission are all forms of trolling. What I’m doing is disagreeing with you. I realize it’s a fine distinction in this day and age, but it’s clear in my mind. Anyway, no one has ever paid me to criticize you or your work.
So grow up, dude, especially if you’re still trying to make a career out of telling other academics how to behave.
Roger’s note back was not responsive to all of my claims. At this point, he retreated from accusing me of being paid to attack him with providing services “pro bono.” I’m not sure Roger understands that that still involves having an actual relationship with an organization.
Please publish this response in full:
1. I asked you on several occasions if you were still funded by Tom Steyer, as it is a matter of public record that you had been previously
2. In response, you confirmed that at times in recent years you were in fact paid by organizations funded mainly/solely by Steyer
3. Several of Steyer-funded organizations led a successful national campaign to have me fired from a job
4. Later, thanks to Russians and Wikileaks we know that there was an organized, well-funded, multi-year effort against me by Steyer-funded groups
5. Perhaps your continuing public trolling of me has been provided pro bono and was not part of your job description for these Steyer-funded groups
I am glad for the clarification of these facts and happy to have them out in the open.
I asked Roger to return his focus to his actual statements and whether or not they are correct as opposed to his new narrative:
I referenced two Twitter posts. One where you accused me of being funded by CAP to attack you and another where you accused me of being funded by Steyer to attack you. “Several occasions” would be news to me, but maybe you’ve done some post-and-blocks before and I didn’t know. And, yeah, it’s a matter of “public record” because I’ve blogged and tweeted about it, including more recently in response to you! Lol.
You and 538 parted ways in 2014. I ran a NextGen field office in Athens, Ohio more than two years later, from September 2016 to November 2016. And I told you about that after your latest outburst, too. I was doing GOTV with students. It had nothing to do with you.
I worked with ClimateTruth.org from 2015 to 2016 through my old firm, well after they rebranded from Forecast the Facts and well after their public criticism of your work at 538 had wrapped up.
So your little conspiracy theory doesn’t even have internal logical consistency. Nor have you ever accounted for the fact that you abused your position at 538 by sending threatening emails to scientists who disagree with you. Always easier to blame others for your faults, as per usual for you.
Additionally, saying that my public disagreements with you are provided to anyone “pro bono” is a stupid, misleading way to put it. I have never had a professional relationship with any organization that carried any expectation of work related to you.
We’re both people with strong opinions who post on Twitter. Not that uncommon! The difference is I don’t make shit up about you then block and mute you while accusing you being a troll.
Also way to ignore making up a quote from me. Great cherry pick there, dude.
Seriously, try taking some responsibility for your own words and actions for once.
Roger stopped responding me, but I followed up, again pointing out specific areas where he refused to acknowledge basic points about my employment history and his actions:
-You did not ask me about my employment history or status on “several occasions.”
-I have never had a paid or unpaid relationship with any organization involving any campaign focused on you or your work.
-I have never been paid by CAP.
-My work with NextGen (Steyer’s org.) involved running a field office in Ohio and doing GOTV work with students, i.e. nothing to do with you.
-My work with NextGen and ClimateTruth.org both post post-date your fallout with 538.
-You published correspondence from me online without my permission, regardless of your unique personal beliefs about professors publishing emails from staff at NGOs. (You don’t work for a media organization, last time I checked.)
-You accused me of telling you to “lawyer up” despite the fact that I never told you to “lawyer up” which constitutes making up a quote from me.
Finally, I don’t know that you’ve proven “Several of [sic] Steyer-funded organizations…” did anything related to your brief tenure at 538. I think you’ve proven that someone at CAP emailed Tom Steyer about your work at 538, as you shared in the Daily Camera article, but if he didn’t write back that doesn’t seem like much of a conspiracy you uncovered. But hey, maybe you have more evidence you haven’t publicly shared with anyone or maybe you’re under some kind of NDA. Beats me. Regardless, I’m sure it’s very comforting for you to believe that your professional failures are someone else’s fault and not yours.
And again, it’s weird that you keep leaving out the part where you abused your position at 538 by sending threatening emails to scientists who disagree with you. As Nate Silver told the Huffington Post at the time: “We made clear that Roger’s conversations with them did not reflect FiveThirtyEight’s editorial values.”
So can we get clear on the stuff about me personally? And if you have the guts, your 538 Wikileaks conspiracy theory? Because if anyone did all that to you, you’d be emailing their bosses and berating science advocacy groups into taking your side. Instead, all I’m doing is calling you out publicly and encouraging you to deal with your own behavior and the inaccuracies you’ve spread about me.
If you continue to dodge these points, all you’ll have demonstrated is your continued lack of professionalism.
Are you going to respond to me or not? If not, why not? Is it because you can’t admit you’re wrong when confronted with your obvious misrepresentations of fact?
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m not letting this go.
After these messages, Roger finally did respond. Not to my points, though. Instead, he decided that he would accuse me of spreading false information about him without identifying what that false information is. Then he hid behind his university position.
I am requesting that you (a) stop spreading falsehoods about me online, and (b) that you also stop harassing me online and via email.
If you sincerely believe that I have engaged in research or academic misconduct, then rather than continued online and personal harassment, I would encourage you to file a formal complaint with the University of Colorado for an official adjudication of your various (false) allegations.
I won’t be responding further.
Roger Pielke, Jr., Professor
University of Colorado
I responded to Roger again to let him know this wasn’t the end of it. Unfortunately, we will continue to run into each other in these public debates.
Well, Roger, it’s good we’re doing this publicly, because what’s clear is that I’ve laid out your falsehoods in detail and you refuse to answer for them.
You also can’t seem to document any falsehoods on my part in item (a) there, but whatever.
You lying about me in public doesn’t constitute “research or academic misconduct.” If you’re lying about me in the peer-reviewed literature, let me know, I guess? As I’ve said from the outset, the problem is that you’re engaging in unprofessional, childish behavior in response to simple disagreemeents. The fact that you’d rather hide behind your university’s complaint process instead of dealing with the facts in front of you speaks directly to your lack of intellectual honesty and your lack of professionalism.
Further, as I wrote to you yesterday, I’m not in the business of running off to people’s bosses and places of employment to resolve disagreements for me. That’s your go-to move. And according to public reporting, it appears to be one the major reasons you were fired from 538.
I understand that you won’t be responding. Big whoop. The fact is that we’re both involved in the climate policy debate and will be for the foreseeable future. All I’m saying is that as a professor, as a public communicator and as someone who I truly believe does care about science and science policy, I expect you to do better when you participate in public debates.
This message was re-tweeted dozens of times, including by climate deniers, a birther conspiracy theorist and a few right wing think tank scholars. I wrote Roger again:
Hey, buddy. Hope you had a nice day getting retweeted by climate deniers and cranks. Also glad to know I’m the leader of a group of senior scientists in your latest conspiracy theory. Truly, it feels like a promotion! Again, I’m not interested in complaining to your bosses about your work. That’s stupid. We’re both adults here. What I am going to do is to challenge you—personally and professionally—to do better and to take responsibility for your words and actions.
Keep on keeping on!
Update 4/24/18 – Looks like the misinformation about me at Science 2.0 was deleted. Included an updated screenshot below. No one from Science 2.0 or ACSH reached out to let me know that it had been corrected or to offer any explanation as to how this happened. Alex Berezow, a senior fellow at ACSH has some less-than-helpful responses to me on this, though. I hope this exercise is useful to others who may find themselves in similar situations in the future.
I was surprised to see a Google Alert land in my inbox on Saturday letting me know that I got some coverage in Science 2.0, a site founded by Hank Campbell, the president of the American Council on Science and Health, a group that pushes back against criticisms of private-sector science and science policy. Unfortunately, the coverage involves an anonymous “news staff” writer making up a conspiracy theory about me.
The post is about disputes over neonicotinoid pesticides. The writer states that Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists:
…have continued to raise money promising donors they will get [neonicotinoids] banned. They have been using a variety of techniques to reach their target goals. Union of Concerned Scientists even got one of its political strategists, Aaron Huertas, placed on a panel about science communication last week, to help groom young science communicators to their side.
It’s hard to know where to start with what’s wrong with this statement, but here’s a shot:
The most ironic part about this? The panel I spoke on was about dealing with misinformation in science communication!
I’ve contacted Campbell multiple times, but haven’t heard back from him. I tweeted to him on Saturday, sent him a DM earlier today, and left him a voicemail via ACSH’s publicly posted phone number. I’ve also contacted ACHS’s communication lead, Erik Liefe, and Alex Berezow, one of its senior fellows. Neither has responded to me. I DMed Campbell again to let him know I was going to write on this to correct the record and that I’d be happy to include any updates or responses from him or Science 2.0. I sent a similar email to Liefe.
To be clear, I don’t know who does these news updates at Science 2.0 or who has editorial control over them or if the site is formally affiliated with ACSH. What I do know is that they published false information about me and I’m willing to spend some time getting that corrected. At this point, I’d also like to know who actually wrote this update, why they didn’t contact me, and why they felt compelled to invent a conspiracy theory about me and my work.
This is actually the second time this year someone with a presumed position of authority has made something like this up about me and my work. Earlier this year, I asked Roger Pielke Jr. a political scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder to correct unfounded public statements he made that I’ve been paid by the Center for American Progress and NextGen Climate to attack him. He declined to do so, instead inventing a conspiracy theory in which I’m leading a group of senior climate scientists against him. Really.
Anyway, the reality is that there are some odd ducks in the science policy community! Sometimes they make deeply uncharitable assumptions about other people and their work, especially those of us who do advocacy and communication for a living. As I told the panel on Thursday, the best thing to do in response is to publicly ask misinformers to correct the record in a venue you can control, whether that’s a Twitter thread or your own blog or a web property operated by an institution you trust.
And for the record, here’s how the Science 2.0 page looked as of Monday morning. I hope they correct their misrepresentations of me and my work, but given Campbell’s non-responses so far, I’m not gonna hold my breath.
But on the upside, now I know how to spell neonicotinoid!
And here’s an updated screenshot from 4/24, when the sentence about me was finally deleted.
The Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases — including “fetus” and “transgender” — in any official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
The New America Foundation, a prominent think tank in DC, is facing scrutiny over its decision to sever ties with a program that was critical of a major funder, in this case Google.
Libby Watson, writing for SplinterNews, notes that the exposure and fallout is all too typical of how corporate money influences think tank research in Washington. As someone who has followed the fossil fuel lobby’s funding of climate denial think tanks, in particular, I couldn’t agree more.
Unfortunately, when public interest think tanks (and advocacy groups) have undisclosed conflicts of interest exposed, they tend to react defensively rather than constructively. In New America’s case, the organization compared the New York Times’s initial report to “fake news” and questioned the behavior and motivations of Barry Lynn, the head of the team of scholars who were fired.
New America’s president and CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter doubled down on some of these assertions on Friday. Interestingly, Slaughter shared more details about a process of pre-screening and advanced notice for Google that she sought to impose on Lynn, in this case for a public statement he issued praising an EU anti-monopoly ruling against Google. Slaughter says she had no intention to censor Lynn, but pre-screening and advance notice policies are often used to censor researchers, including at federal science agencies. Similarly, such advance notice processes have come under scrutiny when fossil fuel companies have funded research, too. Even under the best circumstances, including when the people involved have good intentions and feel they’re working in the public interest, such reviews encourage researchers to self-censor.
So instead of responding defensively, public interest think tanks should realize they have a problem and try to solve it. They surely can’t stop the influence corporate money has on politics. Many also feel they can’t afford to do their work at the scale they’d like to without taking corporate money. But for think tanks that do take corporate money, what they can do is make those funding relationships more transparent and free of conflict.
So here’s an idea for how the New America Foundation should have responded:
“The New York Times has raised serious questions about our organization’s funding from Google and how we treated scholars who are critical of the company’s actions. As a public interest institution that influences policymaking, we understand that responding to this scrutiny is part of our job.
“Think tanks and other groups that seek to influence policy haven’t done enough to examine the implications that corporate sponsorship has for our work. This is an increasingly fraught area and we need to do more. As public funding for independent scholarship has shrunk, companies have stepped in to fill the gap. In many cases, this has led to companies exerting undue influence on research and public communication from scholars. While we stand by our work and our decisions, we have to recognize that organizations that take corporate money to sponsor scholarship, including think tanks, advocacy groups and universities, risk losing public trust. We need to do better.
“In the coming months, the New America Foundation will create a set of conflict of interest and transparency policies that will govern all of our funding relationships. We’ll publish those policies in draft form online and solicit feedback and comments all along the way from subject matter experts, journalists, our peers, and the public. We hope that in doing so, we can begin to identify and implement a new set of best practices in our field. Our ability to serve the public and to continue to do good work demands it.”
Maybe the New America Foundation will get there. Maybe another think tank or advocacy group will first. But this definitely won’t be the last story I read about a corporate conflict of interest at a DC think tank.Continue reading
Yesterday, I posted a quick series of Tweets in response to Bret Stephens’s latest climate column for the New York Times. I was surprised to see my musings get so much traction, including shares from journalists, editors, scholars and thoughtful, passionate people who are fed up with our society’s inability to address climate change.
So, why did my little rant resonate? I think it’s because I don’t make the mistake of treating Stephens’s arguments seriously. After all, he doesn’t treat the topic I’ve worked on for more than a decade seriously. For instance, when he was at the Wall Street Journal, he published conspiracy theories about climate scientists. His move to the Times simply means that he’s had to clean up his arguments a bit, justifying climate inaction for other reasons.
Anyone who’s worked on climate policy for more than a few years has heard every iteration of Stephens’s arguments. But he doesn’t seem to care. For instance, instead of responding to substantive criticisms of his track record from climate experts, Stephens complained about the tone of a Tweet from someone named Jay with a dog and cat avatar and 289 followers. Later, after scientists thoroughly and sometimes hilariously factchecked his first climate column, he left Twitter. Not exactly the paragon of #NeverTrump conservative intellectual courage he bills himself as.
Tellingly, Stephens only responded to his climate critics obliquely when fellow columnist Gail Collins asked him about what kind of climate policy he actually supports. He made a hand-waving call for more research, something policy experts would be happy to tell him is wholly insufficient for reducing the heat-trapping emissions that cause climate change.
Stephens also plays the refs, trying to appeal to journalists, think tankers and other columnists, eagerly pointing to incivility in response to his bad ideas as evidence that his ideas aren’t bad. But this sort of discourse-policing doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t slow the rise of the seas, help a community recover from a storm or put an electron of clean energy on the grid. All it does is make people with bad ideas feel better about themselves.
As law professor David Kaye put it in response to this point:
this is really the key point. stephens reflects not some idealized 'diversity of views' but instead a lack of rigor & honesty. https://t.co/PPS9zfWReP
— David Kaye (@davidakaye) August 31, 2017
Alas, that’s not Bret Stephens. He cares more about people being polite to him online than he does about addressing climate change. But Stephens’s writings are an object lesson for other issues. When we run into people like this in public debates, yes, science advocates and policy wonks should factcheck their claims. But we should also integrity-check their actions. When we ask ourselves what a constructive person with integrity would do in their shoes, it makes their lack of intellectual honesty all the more clear.
Climate scientists, science communicators and journalists have been doing a great job responding to Hurricane Harvey. This is the result of many years of hard work and lessons we’ve learned about being heard clearly amidst a disaster.
There’s always discussion about climate change after a major weather event. Scientists can participate in that discussion or cede ground to climate deniers. This time around, I heard almost no one in my field say that we needed to wait days or weeks to talk about the long-term changes to our planet that are making storms like Harvey worse. The accelerated news cycle has probably contributed to that, but it’s also a strategic choice and a good one.
For years, journalists would ask scientists, “Can we blame this storm on global warming?” It’s a natural instinct and “blame game” style questions are often an outgrowth of how media outlets tend to cover politics. For scientists, research on attributing single events to climate change is not that far along. By contrast, the science linking long-term trends in sea level rise and heavier precipitation to making ALL coastal storms worse is quite clear. And importantly, it’s the latter science that is best suited to informing rebuilding and planning decisions.
Unfortunately, when scientists would answer “blame game” question by saying, “No, but…” journalists would naturally write stories downplaying climate links to storms. Scientists have learned their lesson. Now they say, “Here’s what we do know…” and talk about the long-term trends. Many journalists, too, have invested more time and energy in climate coverage, putting today’s storms in deeper context.
It’s impossible to separate politics from discussions of disasters. Harvey shows us how civic planning, long-term climate adaptation and community resilience intersect. ProPublica’s in-depth reporting on Houston’s infrastructure is a must-read. Hopefully, other cities will take heed before the next disaster strikes. And hopefully Houston can rebuild in ways that offer more protection to people. Disasters also remind us that our neighbors are often our best source of protection. Deep community organizing isn’t just something we need to strengthen our politics – it’s something we need to strengthen our relationship to one another as neighbors.
Every once in a while, someone in media or communications will declare the press release is dead. But the truth is that it just keeps evolving. And if you need to send information to a whole bunch of journalists at once…well, you need to write a press release. Understanding what goes into a good science press release is critical not just for scientists who have to write one on their own, but also for scientists who need to make sure they’re on the same page as their institutional communication staffers.
So here are seven guidelines to keep in mind when writing a release. BUT first – make sure you have your main messages done. Those need to get reflected in a release as well as any other communication you’re doing.
We should also define our terms before we dive in because I often hear the terms “press release” and “statement” used interchangeably, but they are definitely two different things. A press release is about something new and is written like a news story. A “statement” is a reaction to something else happening in the news and includes a quote from a credible source. In many ways, the purpose of a press release is to advertise a possible story to a journalist. By contrast, the purpose of a statement is to give a journalist a quote they can drop into a story they are already writing.
Okay, let’s get into it!
It feels odd to have to say this, but press releases should be written for journalists first and foremost. Too often, I see releases loaded up with attempts to market a university, sell a product, or propagate some political spin. Journalists don’t want that kind of fluff. They need hard news, facts and figures, and quotes that help put research in context for their audience. Using a press release as a conduit for other types of communication is a recipe for having reporters ignore the message. Further, doing so dilutes journalists’ impression of a source as relevant and useful, making them less likely to respond to future releases.
So the main thing I ask when editing a press release is this: Does it help a journalist do their job? If not, it probably doesn’t belong in the release.
Of course, we often face institutional pressure to include a lot of extra information in press releases. People want to toot their own horns, promote their pet projects and put in more and more information. A good press officer will push back, reminding everyone that a press release’s main audience is journalists. Additionally, we have plenty of other outlets where we can post things that aren’t immediately relevant for journalists, including blogs and social media accounts.
If you can wait to promote your research, offering an embargoed copy of a press release and the research itself to a targeted list of reporters is the best way to go. An “embargo” simply means that the reporters agree not to publish until a set time and date, usually a few days in the future. It gives them time to plan on coverage, dig into the research, interview scientists, and, importantly, pitch editors on a story. Usually, only a subset of reporters who regularly cover a topic get an embargoed copy. And note that an embargo is not an “exclusive.” That latter term means that one and only one outlet gets the story.
The alternative – blasting something out “for immediate release” – can wind up hitting reporters’ inboxes while they’re working on something else and usually results in less coverage or no coverage at all.
Do reporters break embargoes? Very rarely, in my experience. And if they do…well, that means someone covered your story, so it’s not a totally bad thing! If anyone ever breaks an embargo – intentionally or not – you can ask them to take a story down, but you probably won’t have much luck. Instead, you’ll have to alert everyone else who has the story that the embargo has been “lifted.”
When to lift an embargo? Earlier in the day is almost always better, especially since so many news outlets produce morning newsletters. A 6AM embargo is common and some organizations even say 12AM as a way of saying, “really, any old time in the morning is fine by us.” And, of course, don’t break your own embargo by publishing the research on your site before stories hit.
Don’t use quotes for expository purposes. Use them to say something about why the research matters, what was interesting about how it was done, or what scientists recommend in response to their research, e.g. personal recommendations for the reader of an eventual news story, policy recommendations, or avenues for future research.
For examples, here’s an unnecessary, expository quote: “The eclipse will last for about two minutes and forty seconds and will cover more than 88 percent of the sun locally.”
These are objective facts that can be conveyed on their own and attributed to a source without them reflecting someone’s perspective.
Now here’s an example of a quote a reporter would find more useful: “If you stay home, you’re still going to see a really amazing astronomical event, but the total eclipse is worth the trip.”
It helps answer an obvious question a journalist would ask: “So…is it worth it to drive to where people can see the totality?” And it’s the type of quote a local TV or radio reporter would want to use to help their audience figure out their plans for eclipse viewing.
Institutions should also be wary of loading up a release with quotes. If too many spokespeople try to get involved in a release, it can quickly turn into a wall of text and disembodied voices that just isn’t very useful for journalists. If other people want to be on call to help answer inquiries, great, but adding too many additional voices to a release just makes it harder for journalists to sift through it and find the information they need. And in a lot of cases, journalists are only going to quote one person from an organization, anyway.
Finally, reporters are almost never going to use fluff quotes in which one speaker thanks someone else for funding or their hard work or partnerships. Unless the contribution someone made is truly newsworthy to someone outside an institution, save those quotes for a blog post or social media.
Journalists’ inboxes and newsfeeds are full of press releases. What gets a journalist to open an email? A subject line and headline that feels timely, interesting and relevant to their beat. (And, although this should go without saying, the research has to actually back up the headline!)
So a good headline for a study might be: “New study finds NYC subways could face more Sandy-like flooding.”
It’s new! It’s local. It gives the reader the most striking finding right away. Heck yeah, they’re opening that. Doubly so if they’re a local reporter in New York City. A TV or radio reporter who doesn’t cover science stories often might even pick up on that given local interest in the subway system.
A less compelling headline would be: “Researchers find coastal flooding growing more extreme.” This is more generic and doesn’t tell the reader anything unique about the research. Importantly, it’s missing what’s new! A beat reporter who covers science and coastal regions might be interested, but the TV or radio reporter is not going to notice it.
Of course, a big study about coastal flooding might have lots of compelling findings for different locations, which brings me to my next point…
It’s more work, but modular releases can really pay off. If a scientific study has findings related to all 50 states, it can be worth doing 50 versions of a release, or at least version for where findings are of possible significant interest. Similarly, changing up releases based on beat can be useful. A press release about a medical device might be of interest to a policy beat reporter, a consumer reporter and a business reporter. They’ll each be looking for a different angle and might even benefit from different headlines, different lead paragraph, and different lead quotes.
Of course, that all takes more time. And there’s no way around it, good media relations work is definitely time consuming.
Press releases should have email addresses, phone numbers and relevant handles for a press officer and / or lead researcher, not just a generic contact. Importantly, releases should have a link to where the press release lives or will live online – this is critical for making news easy to share on social media, especially for journalists who may be interested, but can’t do a whole story.
Press releases should end with “boilerplate,” giving journalists additional information about a researcher, lab, or institution, including relevant links to sites and social accounts that may be useful to their work.
The news is also increasingly visual. If there are any relevant images, charts or even videos from a study, it’s good to put them online and link to them in a release. Even if there aren’t visuals to draw from, consider generating an image with a few key takeaways about the research that’s sized for Facebook and Twitter. Journalists can share those images while appending their own commentary and reporting.
Journalists are understandably weary of PR people sending them irrelevant press releases and myriad follow ups. Over the years, I’ve seen the efficacy of blasting out press releases to big lists of journalists plummet. Strong results come from newsworthy, targeted pitches that are based on understanding a reporter’s beat, their outlet’s audience and their interest in a given topic. And that, of course, requires time and people power. The bottom line is that the more widely a researcher or organization wants to get coverage, the more work they need to put into making that happen.Continue reading
Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical climate scientist who’s one of the best science communicators out there, just did an excellent interview with the America Adapts podcast. I’m a long-time fan of Dr. Hayhoe’s work and hearing her talk shop with an adaptation professional like host Doug Parsons was excellent.
Some key takeaways:
Give it a listen – I always come away from Dr. Hayhoe’s work feeling inspired, grounded and yes – optimistic.
Parsons’ podcast is also a rich resource of people talking about the climate realities we’re dealing with right now. Those conversations are so important for understanding the stakes of the choices we face when it comes to future climate change.Continue reading
I wrote a post-Science March opinion piece for Undark.org. The bottom line? We need to do more to help people see the public service role science plays and the tangible benefits it provides in our lives. Scientists also need to take on new advocacy tasks that they’ve previously figured might be someone else’s job, like making sure people get out and vote. Enjoy!Continue reading
I’m writing a series of posts on science communication and policy for Sigma Xi, the country’s leading scientific honors society.
The first installment covers how scientists think and talk about advocacy, including some social science reviews and advice from one of my old professors and a long-time Hill staffer who recently did a stint at the Food and Drug Administration.Continue reading