How to write a press release
The first thing to do when thinking about how to communicate economic research to a wider audience is to write a short summary of the key findings. These are the notes I’ve been giving to researchers for over 20 years to help them think about how to draft an effective ‘media briefing’.
Every January, I look through the programme of the upcoming Royal Economic Society (RES) annual conference (which usually happens in the week before Easter) to see which papers have the potential to generate interest beyond academic circles. I then write to the authors of the papers I’ve identified, inviting them to draft a 400-600 word non-technical press release or ‘media briefing’ summarising their findings. Edited versions are circulated to journalists, broadcasters and bloggers who might find them appealing. They also appear on the RES website:
Here are the notes I give to the researchers to help them think about packaging their findings for a non-specialist audience.
How to write a press summary of your RES conference paper
We want your paper and presentation at the RES conference to be a success in terms of coverage in the print, broadcast and online media. You can help us achieve this by writing a good non-technical summary and sending it to us well before the conference. The summary should help make the research accessible to a wider public, setting out why the work is important and what you hope it shows. It should not be the abstract of your paper!
Press coverage – how to get it?
First, remember the following: it is unlikely that you are so famous or well-known that journalists will report what you say because you say it. You must instead convince the press that you have something interesting to say – either a new ‘fact’ about the world, a new way of looking at an important issue, or a result which suggests that current policies are misguided, etc.
Second, try to be concrete and specific. Don’t say ‘My research suggests that if taxes go up, the divorce rate goes down’. By how much? ‘Raising the tax rate to 50% would reduce the rate of divorce by half’. Precise new data, together with details of how you got them, can make interesting news.
Third, don’t qualify or hedge your results any more than is necessary. Of course, your results depend on your assumptions, but don’t dwell too much on this. Above all, avoid too much OTOH OTOH – ‘on the one hand, higher x may result in lower y. On the other hand, it may not’. This is interesting if an entire policy has been based on higher x causing lower y, but in most cases OTOH OTOH will leave your audience with the impression that your research is inconclusive and not worthy of attention.
What should the press summary contain?
The press summary should be no longer than 600 words of text. This is the average length of a ‘story’ that we can pitch to journalists. At the end, you should list your contact details: number(s) where journalists can reach you before, during and after the conference; and your email address.
Try to identify three or four key points you want to make in the course of your talk, set them out clearly on the first page, then elaborate on them in the body of the summary. And if subsequent research has added further insights to what’s in the paper, do make sure to include them.
What should I say?
You should remember to work from ‘top to bottom’. Start with the most important and interesting points and work your way down. If you took away all the paragraphs except the first, the press release should still make sense.
The summary should be more than a list of assumptions you make and conclusions you reached. Rather, it should explain the purpose of the research, the framework within which it was carried out, the results and the implications for policy or practice.
Use clear and concise English. One of the most effective ways to do this is to imagine that you are explaining your work to someone who isn’t familiar with the technical aspects of your work. In addition:
- Begin with a general statement that sums up the main finding, then back it up with some facts and figures
- Distil into three or four points the essence of your paper
- Back up these points with facts and figures
- Add a conclusion that outlines the main policy implications or the ‘way forward’
- Above all, keep the language intelligible and jargon-free
Who is the audience?
Remember that journalists will not be specialists in your field.
When you have finished the first draft, ask yourself
- Can I link my findings to a topical event or issue to bring them to life. Most journalists work to tight deadlines and do not have the time to sift through acres of text searching for a hook to hang a story on. This does not mean that your have to sensationalise material to grab the reader’s attention or give it a populist slant.
- What are the policy implications?
- Does my research contradict established views?
- How does it affect perceptions outside the academic community?
- Will the reader finish the summary and think ‘so what’. (If so, you have failed)
At the end of your draft, please add your contact details – most importantly numbers you will be reachable on during and immediately before and after the conference. Please specify if you would prefer home or mobile numbers not to be distributed widely – in which case I can have journalists contact me first and then pass on messages to you to call them back.
For examples of RES media briefings, see here: