How to make your science story go viral

How can you ensure that complex, academic messages reach a wider audience?  Heidi Appel of the University of Missouri-Columbia discusses how her study was picked up and carried across traditional media news cycles. 

We researchers all wonder whether reaching a broader audience for our academic work is worth the time and effort. Here’s a recent experience that may help you decide.

On July 1 2014 I published a paper with Rex Cocroft showing that plants can identify vibrations caused by caterpillar chewing and respond with increased chemical defense. The story quickly developed a life of its own, getting picked up by newspapers internationally and by major online-only media outlets. When National Geographic put the story on their Facebook page July 10, it accumulated over 12,000 likes in four days. Within a month, over 4,300 media outlets had carried the story.

What happened to make this story go so far?

1. Our subject has broad public appeal

Plants are perennially underestimated by humans. They’re largely immobile and most of their behavior is invisibly chemical. When plants are shown to have complex responses to their environment, we are surprised. Even delighted.  This presented Rex and me with both an opportunity and a challenge – do we ignore the analogy with human senses or address it upfront in the news release to control the message? Do plants “distinguish among vibrational signals” or do they “hear”? We chose the latter.

2. A little science communication training goes a long way

Twenty years of teaching science to honors students – science majors and not – has provided me with great experience in explaining science concepts well, but it was no preparation for the simplification required for the news media. At a 2013 Becoming the Messenger workshop offered by the National Science Foundation, I gained experience and some confidence in describing my research to the general public. At several symposia on Science Communication at the AAAS Annual Meeting in 2014, I learned tips for communicating with the public and, perhaps most importantly, I listened to science news reporters describe how they find their stories.

Research can be shared with those outside academia’s ivory tower. (Roger Meissen | MU Bond Life Sciences Center, CC BY)

3. My institution encourages explaining research to the public

The Bond Life Sciences Center at the University of Missouri has its own media team that develops news releases with video content and serves as a liaison between the center’s scientists and the great science news writers at the Mizzou News Bureau. It also hosts a program to cross-train life science undergraduates and journalism students, communication workshops for faculty, and science lectures and symposia for the general public. In total, these things provided a basic understanding of the news landscape, news cycle and best practices in interacting with journalists and the public.

4. It pays to be proactive in promoting a story

At the AAAS meeting, science reporters said that they get their stories mostly from personal contacts and not from the hundreds of university news releases filling their in-boxes daily. So I emailed a brief description of our research with the subject line “plants can hear” to a New York Times reporter. I received a reply in a couple hours, and did a phone interview the next day for the Observatory Column in the Tuesday Science Section.

5. Devote time to the interview requests

This meant not only answering all requests for interviews, but answering them within a few hours. The contemporary news cycle means that significant delays in response – a day or more – can turn your newsworthy work into no news, depending on the media outlet. Often the interviews themselves could be scheduled a day or two out, or accomplished by email. Rex and I decided from the beginning to do all interviews together if possible, initially because of our complementary expertise and later because it was simply more interesting. All but NPR obliged, and as time went on we learned the necessary depth of each other’s work and found ourselves finishing each other’s sentences and even answering what had previously been questions directed to the other. Interviews became fun exchanges with each other and the journalist.

I’d do it all again

Was it worth it? You bet. My research is now more widely known in academic circles than it was before, and the media attention has opened up new professional opportunities and collaborations, as predicted. If there was an undertow of damage to my academic reputation due to receiving the media attention, I haven’t felt it yet. Capturing the public’s imagination with a research story was immensely gratifying because it broadens their appreciation of what scientists do. It was also great fun.

The ConversationThis article has been subbed/amended by IABC UK and was originally published on The Conversation and is reposted under CC BY-ND. You can read the original article here.

About the Author

Heidi Appel is Senior Research Scientist, Bond Life Sciences Center and Division of Plant Sciences atUniversity of Missouri-Columbia.

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