A veteran science communicator’s guidelines for PR news releases on medical research

By | December 3, 2018

Posted By


This guest post is by Earle Holland, a member of our editorial team for the past four years.  For almost 35 years, he was the senior science and medical communications officer at Ohio State University. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Earlier this week, HealthNewsReview publisher Gary Schwitzer wrote that the free news release review program he had offered was shutting down.  You could almost hear the disappointment in his explanation that barely more than a half-dozen institutions took advantage of this offer in the past 20 months it was available.

“What more we can do?” he asked.

Reviewing news releases in addition to news stories was a possibility that Gary and I had discussed for some years and when funding became available in 2015, he jumped at adding the critiquing of these institutional offerings alongside the traditional journalistic stories.  Since a large proportion of health and medical stories originate as news releases, improving the quality of releases logically might improve the starting point for journalists reporting this research.

Gary had asked me to comment on the sad results of what we thought would be a boon to institutions reporting on their research progress.  I offered:

Surprisingly, many research institutions lack an actual policy on how news releases are written, who reviews them or what they need to include.  Without a formal policy outlining what releases require, institutions will continue to be embarrassed like the University of Maryland over their chocolate milk-concussion fiasco, or the University of Iowa over its claims that oregano can affect the cancer-wasting syndrome.

But in fairness, my calling for a “policy” might be a bridge too far.  Especially at public institutions, the establishment of actual policies requires action by the governing board of that institution, and policies on news releases rarely reach the attention of such controlling bodies.  But that needn’t stop communications professionals from doing their due diligence in insuring that their news releases serve the public.

Read More:  Keeping Up-to-Date on COPD Controversies: A Clinician Interview

During my tenure at Ohio State University, we faced the same kinds of pressures to amplify the importance of our research findings that medical institutions exert.  To combat that, my Research Communications unit adopted a set of “principles” that guided how we promoted research through news releases.   They required no action by the Board of Trustees, only an understanding and acceptance by the communications leadership, an attainable goal.

In the interest of transparency, and the hope that other institutions might adopt a thoughtful approach to their efforts at producing health and medical news releases, I offer a slightly abbreviated list of the guidelines I used:

  1. The orientation of all stories produced by Research Communications is based on what readers/viewers/listeners are interested in . . . what they want to hear – not on what the institution wants to tell them.  Because this approach mirrors that of the working news media, reporters/producers/editors are more receptive to our content and make use of it.  As a result, we look to report only on stories where the goals of the institution and the goals of the news media intersect.
  2. There is no political element involved in the decision-making as to what stories are selected for coverage, or in how those stories are built.  Normal journalistic practices and accepted news judgment are the guidelines we use that govern our approach on everything.
  3. The potential for commercial applications from research results usually mandates a higher level of scrutiny on our part as to the editorial content.  That is, our goal is to prevent any possible perception that the communication of such results is part of a strategy to promote a licensure or financial involvement that would benefit the university.  Avoiding this “fiscal motivation” precludes much of the suspicion that journalists may bring to such stories and insures a higher level of receptivity.
  4. Research Communications reserves the right to determine the editorial approach to the story, within the constraints of accepted journalistic accuracy.  This occasionally means that our vision differs from that of the principal investigator in how he/she might explain the research.  Although we work hard to compromise on specific language, we reserve the right to refuse a story which we feel is journalistically ineffective.
  5. All stories produced by Research Communications are reviewed only by the principal investigator for technical accuracy.  That “technical accuracy” measure is one that a reasonable person would understand, not one that necessarily reflects the literal technical precision that most researchers would define.
  6. All stories produced by Research Communications are reviewed only by the principal investigator and not by any additional administrators, i.e., department chairs, deans, center directors, etc.  “Writing by committee” almost always results in copy that dilutes the central message about the research and makes our stories less effective in garnering news coverage.  In addition, the extra time for additional review often results in delayed stories that are perceived as no longer timely and newsworthy by the media.  Limiting review to principal investigators reinforces the perception among journalists that we are conveying actual news – as they define it – rather than just promotional information for the institution.
  7. Sponsors are not allowed any access to, or a right of review of, research stories prior to their release to the news media.  This prevents the perception that the stories are part of a commercial marketing strategy
  8. While we strive to garner coverage from the local and statewide news media, the orientation of our stories always addresses a national or international cohort of journalists, insuring that what we produce has the greatest potential for coverage.
Read More:  Medical News Today: How does Zoloft affect bipolar disorder?

Our strict adherence to these principles has been the fundamental foundation for our success in gaining national and international news coverage for Ohio State University research.

Admittedly, I do not know if my former institution has continued to follow these guidelines since my retirement.  I hope they have.  Regardless, these statements are a good blueprint for public information officers to consider when reporting on their research.  The public deserves the best we can offer, a fair and honest assessment of discoveries, unembellished by the desires of institutions to polish their image.

With the impending end of funding for HealthNewsReview and the end of its exceptional assessment of emerging health and medical news, someone needs to step up, embrace the challenge, and work on the public’s behalf.

They deserve no less.

You might also like