How to Survive a Media Blitz: an Academic’s Guide

Full vitae media blitz

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By Erin L. Thompson

Maybe you’ve announced an intriguing scientific discovery. Maybe a tweet comparing your research to current events has gone viral. Or maybe, like me, the art exhibit you curated has proven unexpectedly controversial. Whatever the cause, your voicemail and inbox are filling with interview requests, and news articles about your scholarship seem to be published every 10 minutes. You’re facing a wave of media interest. How do you keep from drowning?

I’ve written this to share the advice I wish I would have known as I faced my own media blitz. I never thought my work would attract so much interest. Whether you, too, find yourself unexpectedly overwhelmed or you just want to make the most of a single interview request, it’s best to be prepared.

Gather your team. You could try to handle the sudden attention by yourself. But you will be exhausted, irritable, and overwhelmed. And being exhausted, irritable, and overwhelmed is the surest way to end up making a public comment that you regret, whether it’s merely incoherent or reputation-destroying disastrous. So I strongly advise you to ask additional people — administrators, colleagues, even students — to help craft your response.

First, meet with people in the media-relations or public-outreach office on your campus. Ask what they expect their role to be. Some will want to sit in on interviews, while others will leave everything up to you. Even a hands-off media-relations office can give you good advice on how to deal with specific problems.

For example, when I got an interview request from a publication I knew was hostile toward my field, my instinct was to just ignore it. But my college’s media-relations staff suggested that I offer to respond in writing to a set of emailed questions. The publication was going to run a story whether I talked to its reporter or not, and this way, I could make sure my written comments were calm, collected, and as resistant to distortion as possible.

Your colleagues are also a valuable source of information and inspiration. Find people who have been in your shoes. They can listen to your practice interviews and go over your talking points before a TV appearance. Afterward they can help you dissect how it went and figure out how to tell your story more clearly during the next interview. During a media blitz, you might have trouble keeping up with your day-to-day responsibilities, like committee work or even teaching. Your colleagues might be willing to guest-lecture or otherwise pinch-hit for you.

Speaking of classes: In the midst of a media frenzy, it’s easy to forget that you’re also a teacher. But it can be an excellent learning opportunity for both undergraduates and graduate students. They can help you do a little research on the previous work of journalists who are asking for an interview, so you know what to expect. Students can track media coverage for you by setting up Google alerts or running online searches (using the Google News tab and sorting by publication date is especially effective). Invite students to observe your interviews — just warn them that they may be asked to volunteer their reactions to your work.

Some folks will invite themselves to join your team. The bigger the story gets, the higher up in the administration the interest will go. It can be flattering to have the provost call to say you sounded good on the 7 o’clock news, but it can also be nerve-racking to have so many eyes on you, judging how you are representing your institution.

When you get calls from administrators, offer a summary of your main talking points as well as the materials you send to the media. Ask for their input, but don’t feel that you have to follow it. The story is really about your scholarship, and it’s up to you to strike the right balance between saying what you think is important and what administrators might want you to say.

Organize your tool kit. When you make the news, a lot of people are going to want a lot of information from you very quickly. Fortunately, many free or low-cost tools make it fairly easy to meet those demands.

To help your team work together, set up an email account with a shared password and a file-storage space. I used a free Gmail account and Dropbox. We forwarded any emails relating to media interest to the shared account and used the associated Google Calendar to note the times of scheduled interviews. On Dropbox we set up a folder of background information and high-resolution images to share with journalists. That way we could send a link to an inquiring journalist, instead of having to assemble and attach the materials every time. And we could do it on a cellphone app, making it much easier to respond to a 3 a.m. request from a journalist on deadline on the other side of the world.

Google Docs — or other platforms that allow people to access a shared, updatable text file — are also helpful for keeping administrators or other members of your team apprised without your having to send a constant stream of emails.

At minimum, keep a running list of links to published stories and notes about forthcoming pieces and scheduled interviews. If you’re very organized, keep a list of reporters’ names and contact information. That makes it easy to reach them in the future.

Consider using Skype for interviews instead of talking by phone. That way you’re more likely to get a reporter’s full attention and thus a more accurate article. Talking face-to-face just seems to create more interest and rapport.

Finally: Don’t let outmoded technology get in your way. If you don’t check messages on your office phone, make sure that number is removed from online directories. Instead, list your cellphone number or whatever else is the fastest way to contact you.

Shape the coverage. When the Twittersphere is erupting, the phone is ringing off the hook, and the CNN producer is pushing you to do a live broadcast, it’s tempting to shut your office door, turn off the lights, and hope everyone goes away. (That is an option; more below on when you should go that route.)

But if you decide to ride the media wave, you can take steps to improve the chances that your work will be characterized in a balanced, comprehensive, and productive way.

When journalists call, respond promptly with background material on your work and with quotes, so they don’t have to struggle at the last minute to integrate your side of the story. Offer contact information for other potential interview subjects — and not just other scholars. Help reporters develop the human-interest angle by putting them in touch with people who are experiencing the problems or injustices you study, for example.

You should even consider recommending critics of your work. Many journalists will want to balance their story with an opposing point of view. Help them find the equivalent of Critic No. 1, who understands your work yet has thoughtful concerns, rather than Critic No. 2, who will give an enraged response based solely on reading your paper title.

Finally, and most important, practice your main talking points and your answers to frequently asked questions. You want to sound pithy, straightforward, and quotable.

You can’t dictate who will write about you or what they will say — but you may be able to influence both. Try emailing a quick pitch to journalists you admire. Offer them some information exclusively, or point out an angle that other news reports haven’t covered. Pay attention to which journalists retweet stories about your project. (One efficient way of finding them: Search Twitter for keywords followed by "filter:verified." That shows you only tweets from users with blue-check-marked "verified" accounts, which is common for journalists.) Comment on their tweets and offer an interview.

Academics are often frustrated with how we are quoted. A line or two of text, or a few seconds of airtime, can’t possibly capture the complexity of our scholarly work. You can spare yourself a little frustration if you rethink the purpose of interviews: They’re not to inform people but to excite their curiosity. Think of your quotes as akin to descriptions in a course catalog, inviting people to seek out more information about a subject.

Ideally, offer people somewhere to go with their curiosity, besides directly to impenetrably dense scholarly publications. It takes only a few hours, and little technological proficiency, to set up a website using a service like Squarespace (for a fee) or WordPress (free). Your website doesn’t need to be elaborate — a summary of your project, links to some of the best coverage it has received, and recommendations for further reading are enough. Be sure to ask journalists to link to your website in their articles.

Another way to shape the discussion of your work is to write about it on your own. Submit an essay to one of the widely read venues that care about scholarly topics, such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, or The New York Review of Books. Encourage your team members to write as well. Helping students edit and submit their own pieces about your topic, for the student newspaper or even national publications, is a great form of mentorship.

Set some priorities — and some limits. Remember how stressful it was to spend all day sounding charming and intelligent during your campus job interview? Dealing with journalists can feel the same way — except that in a media blitz, you have to get up the next day and do it all over again. And the next day, and the next. So ask yourself early on: Should I even make the effort?

Do you think your work is self-explanatory? That the media is interested in merely sensationalizing it? That you have other commitments, so that it doesn’t make sense to devote time to a slew of reporters, especially if doing so won’t get you extra pay or count toward your tenure case? Then work out a response with your media-relations team — like having a prepared statement or just saying "no comment" — and return to your normally scheduled life.

If you do want to engage, think about your priorities so that you can set some limits:

  • Should you respond to inquiries from foreign-language publications?
  • Will you go to the greater effort that a TV-news shoot requires over print interviews?
  • Can you restrict interviews to certain days or limited hours, so you can have time for your other work or to be home when your kids get back from school?
  • If you are part of a team of research collaborators, who should be the public face of the project? Will you take turns doing interviews?

Looking back, I can’t decide what was most surreal about my own time in the spotlight: learning to apply my own stage makeup or having the opportunity to talk about my work to millions of people. Both are equally uncharacteristic of my usual academic life. I’m happy I got the chance to do both, and I hope these suggestions will help you, too, feel a measure of comfort should a wave of attention come your way.

Erin L. Thompson is an assistant professor at John Jay College of the City University of New York, specializing in art law. Besides her academic work, she has written for The Nation, The New York Times (most recently here), and other venues. Her website is Artcrimeprof.com.

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