Sunday, 8 March 2009

Digital PR, web 2.0 and engaging the public in science

Digital media offer access to significant and growing audiences and is a sector that science communicators and dialogue practitioners cannot afford to ignore. But how do you target these channels?

We've been speaking to digital PR experts and bloggers as part of our work with the ScienceWise-ERC. Our initial expectation, based on our experience with traditional PR, was that they would help us understand how to identify the right blogs and websites to target and how to persuade them to write about our projects. But our research revealed a landscape that is far more complicated and exciting than we had anticipated.

When working with the mainstream media, there are two key knacks to getting media coverage. The first is to find an angle on your story that will catch the attention of journalists – the newshooks. The you have to get it in front of the right journalists. Databases of journalists exist and PR people typically send their press release out to hundreds. OK, sometimes they are tailored for a particular audience and sometimes they’re accompanied by a telephone call, but in general the approach is to send the press release out to as many people as possible.

Oddly, it turns out that neither of these knacks are effective online. Apart from websites (such as the BBC) which follow a journalistic model, most online media (especially social media such as blogs) aren’t driven by the news agenda. Their authors aren’t so interested in circulation figures. Instead they focus on writing about things that interest them, often for a specific niche or group of people. Since these writers know what they’re interested in, they’re also good at finding things that are interesting – signing up to RSS feeds for websites that interest them, doing google searches to find new stuff. Unsolicited press releases usually fall victim to the spam filter.

Four things to think about if you plan to work with online media:
  1. ‘Broadcasting’ doesn’t work - one of the key features of the web is the 'long tail' which means that audiences are niche and very specific. Forget trying to reach everyone and try to reach those that count
  2. Social Media values are not the same as news values - we’re not saying that the news cycle isn’t still alive and well – even online. But bloggers generally don’t consider themselves as catering for a particular audience – most are primarily writing for their own purposes and for people who know them. If that attracts a crowd, then great
  3. Your key audience is a machine - The majority of people find what they want online through search engine, so you have to think about pleasing lines of code in all of your content. This requires regularly updated material, published in a number of places and with as much thought given to keywords as you would ordinarily give to finding newshooks.
  4. The line between communications and dialogue is blurred - The interactivity of the web 2.0 means that the line between communications for promotion and for policy change (or ‘pure dialogue’) is much more blurred than it ever has been off-line – which can be both an opportunity and a challenge.

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