Communications and External Affairs

Working with the media

Look at a newspaper or tune in to any news programme and pretty soon you'll come across stories about university research, or you'll hear or see university academics giving their comments and analysis on hot topics of the day.

To the outside world, you are the expert, you are at the cutting edge of research that could change our lives, and you have the knowledge and insight to explain complex situations and events.

Why would you want to talk to the media?

Of course, your immediate response might be: "But I don't want to talk to them". Perhaps you see it as an unnecessary intrusion into your working life. Or you have a deep mistrust of journalists and live in fear of being misquoted.

On the other hand, you might regard press coverage as a chance to enhance your profile, which, in turn, could secure funding for that piece of research you've always wanted to carry out. You might even discover that you enjoy communicating your knowledge and thoughts to the great unwashed and relish the opportunity to appear on the pages of the Guardian or to be quizzed on the 'Today' programme.

The role of the Media Relations team

How can we help you?

You may be doing some brilliant work, but if your media exposure is limited to specialist academic journals, reporters won't be knocking at your door.

"If you're doing stuff of use to society at large, then telling society at large should be a high priority." Andy Medhurst, Senior Lecturer in Media, Film and Cultural Studies.

Most universities have a media relations team to help the outside world understand what's happening at their institution and to raise their profiles. Working with journalists helps to present a positive picture of the university's work and achievements. We do this in a number of ways:

  • Press releases - Information about newsworthy events at the University is usually issued by us in the form of a press release. Sometimes the events will be mainly of interest to local media, such as the Argus, BBC Sussex radio, Splash FM, Meridian TV and BBC South Today. Interesting research findings are usually sent to specialist correspondents of national newspapers and their news editors. The press release is a quick, efficient method of getting an item into the news.
  • Press conferences - If an event is likely to receive a lot of press interest, or it is the subject of an embargo tied in with publication in a journal, or it involves a number of people at the University, the press office will organise a press conference. Journalists will be invited to a venue at an allotted time to hear those involved give a short presentation. The press will then be given an opportunity to ask questions. This ensures that interested media all receive information at the same time and is an efficient method of getting major stories out in the public domain.
  • Tip-offs - A press release isn't always the best way of getting coverage. Sometimes a publication will give a story greater prominence if it's offered as an 'exclusive'. If we think we have a story that would be ideal for a particular publication or news programme, we may make an individual approach to the editor.
  • Sharing expertise - Every day we receive calls from journalists who are looking for an academic's expert comment on a particular subject. We need to respond quickly to these media requests, many of which are for the same day. To help achieve this, we maintain an up-to-date database of University staff, with contact details and areas of expertise. Let us know if you would like to be added to our experts directory by emailing us at press@sussex.ac.uk
  • Speaking for the University - Another major role for the press office is to speak on behalf of the University. In particular, we are authorised to explain University policy to the media and transmit information about University affairs. Faculty members are not permitted to do this. You are free to express your personal views in public or private, provided that it is done explicitly in your name and not in that of the University. If you receive any questions from the media regarding University policies, you should direct the journalist to the Media Relations team.

The stories that make the news

What happens first?

You tell us about your latest research findings or other news and we'll discuss the angles and audiences to whom it might appeal. If we think the news will generate a lot of media interest, we may suggest holding a press conference.

Stories interest editors if they:

  • relate closely to an event which has already made news
  • provide a new and interesting angle or some human interest

All news is more interesting if it is about people rather than things. A story about academic research will have a far better chance of being picked up by the press if it includes personal details that will help it come alive for the audience, or if is about something that will affect the lives of ordinary people.

We'll then write the press release, incorporating the vital information:

  • Who is doing the research?
  • Why are they doing it?
  • What have they found?
  • How did they do it?
  • When did they do it?

You can check over the press release for accuracy, but remember, we are writing for a lay audience and we will simplify academic jargon.

We send out the press release, with your name and telephone number as a contact, as well as contact details of the press office. We'll need to know your availability for interviews. Depending on the nature of the story, the release will go to local media, national media, specialist publications or specialist correspondents.

What happens next?

News desks generally decide very soon after receiving the press release whether or not they want to cover your story. If it's of mass appeal (say, you've found a cure for a terminal disease, or you've come up with a new theory on the secret of eternal happiness), you're likely to be inundated with requests for interviews, and they'll want them now.

Timing is crucial to newspapers and broadcasters. You may find your academic life disrupted for a couple of days while you fit in interviews. It's best to leave your diary flexible once a press release has gone out.

"I did interviews non-stop for three days after my research on elephants' memories was published. It was good to get it all done at once because I could concentrate on that alone. I found I became much better at giving succinct answers." Professor Karen McComb, Reader in Behaviour Ecology.

Help and advice

For more information, including interview tips, visit our advice and guidance web pages.

If you think you have a story that is newsworthy, or would like to talk to somebody about working with the media, email press@sussex.ac.uk or call Jacqui Bealing (ext. 7437) or James Hakner (ext. 7966).