Being asked to comment on a new piece of research by a journalist is a great opportunity to put forward the charity’s views on a topic, and put patients (or your charity’s beneficiaries) back into the story. But faced with a tight deadline, and possibly an unfamiliar topic, it can be difficult to get right.
In this blog, I’m sharing some tips to guide you through the process of writing an insightful comment.
Note this blog is not designed for PR professionals in charities, the people dealing directly with journalists. This blog is for the ‘resident research expert’ in your charity. The person who is asked their opinion by a journalist on some recent research.
Before we start
It’s important to understand why a journalist asks a charity to comment on research at all, and how you fit into the development of a news story.
Why am I being asked to do this?
Charities can provide expert opinion on new medical research, which is the main reason a journalist asks. It means the charity can put their patients (or the charity’s beneficiaries) at its heart. For most journalists, getting a comment isn’t simply a box-ticking exercise to liven up a dull article. They genuinely want your advice on how they should be interpreting this research.
There are other reasons too, of course, why a charity should be interested in commenting on the latest research. Getting the charity’s name into the paper is good PR and increases brand awareness. It shows the public (in a small way) you’re up to date with the latest research. It signals your expertise and credibility to other audiences too, such as researchers and policymakers. And helping journalists out with tight deadlines builds a good relationship. This can occasionally come in handy when your charity has its own work to promote.
What’s my role?
In my opinion, the role of a charity commentator is a ‘critical friend’, with the patients’ interests at heart.
For any given piece of research that hopes to make it into the news, there will be plenty of people who act as ‘cheerleaders’, to varying degrees. The editor wants to sell newspapers, the journalist wants their story to keep readers gripped, the press office putting out the release (e.g. at the university) wants to get their name out – and most scientists wouldn’t mind too much seeing their name in the news.
Generally speaking, if the story has made it as far as a journalist trying to get a comment from you, the story doesn’t need another cheerleader. Therefore, a good role for you to play is to provide a bit of balance – identify what’s great about the study, but also where its weaknesses lie. That doesn’t mean trash a piece of research for the sake of it (unless it really deserves it).
On the other hand, if you are super excited about a piece of research – if it genuinely is ground-breaking or game-changing work – then say so.
Start with the press release
When it comes to responding to a journalist’s request for a comment on some research, it might be tempting to dive straight into the paper. But I think it’s helpful to look at the press release first.
In most cases, the press release is the first thing that the journalist will read about this research.
Being kind for a second, the press release is there to summarise the research, put it into context, help people understand the importance. Being cynical, you could say the press release’s job is to ‘spin’ the research to make it sound exciting.
Either way, it shapes the journalists’ interpretation of the research paper when they read it.
A classic study from 2014 demonstrates the power of press releases in shaping a news story. The researchers looked at 462 press releases relating to medical research, from 20 leading UK universities. They were looking for a range of exaggerated claims, including health advice based upon basic research, claims about ‘A causes B’ when there was only a correlation and extrapolation of findings from animal studies to humans. Press releases which contained these exaggerations were between seven and 56-times more likely to result in news stories which contained these exaggerations, compared to more cautious press releases.
Which is why it’s a good idea to start with the press release and understand the angle the journalist understands about that research. Then, you can look into whether that angle is fair, or over-exaggeration.
Things to look for
Now that you’ve had a look over the press release, it’s your chance to assess the research paper. What should you be considering?
Journalists are approaching your charity for comment because you’re the experts. You’re in a great position to know the background of the research, and what we do (or don’t) already know.
When assessing the research paper, think about:
- What do we already know about this topic?
- Does this research go against the grain? If so, why?
- Does this study settle a debate, once and for all? If not, why not?
- If it relates to a clinical trial – are these the final results we’ve all been waiting for? Are there more results to come? What’s next for the treatment/test etc?
When assessing the quality of the research, you’ll probably spend some time looking at what the researchers did in the study. In my view, the guiding principles are:
- How close to patient benefit is this research?
- How sure can we be of the findings?
There are far too many research methods, and ways that results can be over-interpreted, to cover here. But things you can be thinking about include:
- Was this a study done in cells in a lab? In mice? In humans? In a computer programme?
- Is it a small or a big study?
- Was it a retrospective study, or a prospective study?
- If there’s a claim that ‘A causes B’, what else do you need to take into account?
Remember there’s never any strict gold-standard for what constitutes a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ study. Having 100 participants in study A might make it weak, but 100 participants in study B might make it an excellent and robust piece of research. Assess each study on its own merits.
Another thing to think about, when considering the ‘patient benefit’ of the study, is who this relevant to? Is this study relevant to all people with a disease, or a particular group?
Did the study look at the relevant measures? For example, if the study claims blueberries can reduce the chances of prostate cancer, did it actually look at the rates of prostate cancer diagnosis? Or was it a different proxy measure that has only a tenuous relationship to prostate cancer incidence? It can be an important distinction.
Down to business
You’ve had a good think about the study, now you need to put your thoughts to paper (or to keyboard). Here are my tips:
Write a summary
Before I start writing a comment, I always try and write a very quick summary of the research – a few bullet points. It helps to shape my thoughts. And when it comes to explaining my thinking later, I can refer back to things already written down, rather than expect whoever is reading to know the ins-and-outs of the research.
The press release tells the story of what the researchers did and what they found. A summary can be a good way to set out what they actually did and what they really found (if you think it’s worth pointing out). Telling the story of what the press release isn’t mentioning can be helpful.
Another key element is to give your general impression of the research, in a couple of words. Do you think it’s great, shocking, intriguing, terrible, a waste of everyone’s time? If you have a particularly strong opinion (whether good or bad) it can be good to let the journalist know in advance, as it may shape how they decide to cover it (or whether they cover it at all).
What to say in the comment itself
OK – FINALLY! You’re writing something for a comment. What do you actually say?
My guiding principle is to think like a spokesperson. Imagine, for a second, you are the charity’s CEO (don’t pretend you’ve never thought about this). You’re sitting on the sofa on BBC Breakfast or Good Morning Britain. The presenter asks you what you think about this study. What do you say? What message would you want to get out to the viewers eating their breakfast?
Here are some suggestions:
- Consider your beneficiaries – your charity exists for the benefit of people affected by a health condition. So your comment (and everything you do, frankly) should have them at the front of mind. What does this research mean for them?
- Recommendations – What would you suggest that people do in response to this news? Even if it is nothing. Note – this is not the time to start making up your charity’s policy towards X or recommendations that people avoid Y. But if there are recommendations which feature in the press release, would you agree?
- Your charity’s position – what is your charity’s current position on this topic? If this research goes against the grain of established research, it’s unlikely you’re going to change your position overnight. Talk about how this paper fits into that context (and recommendations, if necessary)
- Your charity’s agenda – Explicit mentions of the work your charity is doing – “this research is fantastic, just like the research our charity funding into blah blah blah…” – is unlikely to be used by the journalist. This is not your opportunity to promote your charity. But… if, while providing a bit of context about the research, you happen to mention an issue or an area of work which is important to your charity’s beneficiaries, and it happens to be something you’ve been working on recently… then I think that’s probably ok.
- Say what you think – if you think this research is brilliant, say so. If you think it’s a load of balls, say so. Or you think there’s a more important and urgent story that needs telling, then say so.
Things to avoid
These are a few things to avoid writing between those quotation marks:
- A summary of the paper – Ok, I said earlier that you could write a quick summary of the paper for background while compiling the quote. But don’t include any of it in the quote – this is covered in the article. Your task is to comment on the research, not repeat its findings.
- “Interesting” when you mean “boring” – this tip came from an excellent guide for scientists being asked by journalists for comments, written by Ed Yong. “This research is interesting…” is not an interesting quote – especially if you don’t mean it. Stop trying to be generous. If it’s boring, why is it boring? What is it about it that isn’t surprising?
- “Ground-breaking” or “game-changing” – just stop. We all know that research rarely makes giant leaps, it’s all about the baby steps. Using this phrase over and over also means that, when something comes along that really is game-changing, it’s lost all its meaning. If you really really think that a study is ground-breaking, that’s fine – but please think of a different adjective, because it’s wheeled out far too often.
- “More research is needed” – (another tip from Ed Yong’s piece). “More research is needed” is not useful or informative, and people are sick of hearing it. Why is more research needed? What research is needed? Are we waiting for more results from a different study? Does this study not answer all the questions we have?
Helping to put together quotes takes a bit of practise. But like most things in life, the more you do it, the easier it will be. I hope these tips will help shape your thinking, put you in the shoes of a spokesperson, and make sure your insightful quote gets the name of your charity out to the world.
Thank you to Jamie Lederhose, PR Manager for Breast Cancer Now, for his input.