On the front page of the Volkskrant
Researchers are human too; they like it when people are interested in their work. Particularly fellow researchers, of course, but also the media. But is such publicity useful? And how do you get onto the front page of the Volkskrant newspaper?
To start with the latter question first: unfortunately, there is no guaranteed method, because although most researchers are convinced of the importance of their research, that does not mean it is newsworthy. So what is news? According to Annelotte Huiskes, responsible for press and science communication at Maastricht University together with Caroline Roulaux: “A topic that has a link to current events can be newsworthy, or discoveries which contribute to a breakthrough of some kind. Sometimes particular themes are newsworthy, even if they are unrelated to current events û how the memory works, for example, or drugs or obesity.” Roulaux: “Often they will be subjects which affect a lot of people, and which are close to people’s hearts.”
It is not hard to imagine that researchers would like the press to be interested in their research. But is it useful? “The university is always looking to raise its profile”, says Roulaux. “We want to be seen. Universities are increasingly competing with each other, not just for students but also for research funding. For this reason, it’s important for universities to set themselves apart from their rivals and use the media to demonstrate what types of research they excel in. Moreover, as a researcher, your work is being funded above all by government money. As a kind of quid pro quo, you’re showing that it’s being spent in a way that is relevant to society.” Huiskes: “I think this is one of the most important functions of science communication. A well-known phenomenon is the scientist as an expert on TV. We spend a lot of our time looking for experts in response to media requests. Perhaps it’s not every researcher’s dream, but it’s important that researchers do present themselves in that way. And we can help them to do so; for example, the university’s Staff Career Counselling Services offers media training.”
Advice and interaction
What can the Press and Science Communication department do for researchers? Huiskes: “In the first place, we have an advisory role. Which medium is best suited to achieving your objective? If you want to attract fellow researchers and interested parties to your symposium, it’s not particularly useful to send a press release to the Volkskrant. There are a number of ways to present research or a researcher. We can give advice about which is the best approach at a particular time. We have built up a large network, particularly within the Dutch media. We are also working to establish an international media network, starting with the university’s target countries.” Roulaux: “And naturally we help with the execution - writing press releases, for example. Science journalism is not the same thing as writing a scientific article. The former requires you to make a scientific subject understandable to the layperson.” A case a point is the Research Magazine on the Maastricht University website. This publication describes UM research in an accessible and easy-to-read manner. A very different example is the free daily newspaper Sp!ts, which has a popular science column for which Maastricht University supplies part of the content.
“By the way”, says Huiskes, “it’s not just about researchers coming to us. For example, there’s the academic events calendar, the monthly overview of all PhD defences and inaugural lectures. This provides us with a regular snapshot of the research going on within the university. We’ll often choose an item that strikes us as potentially newsworthy and approach the relevant PhD candidate or professor ourselves.” Roulaux: “It’s an interaction: we need to know what’s happening within the university in terms of research, and the researchers need to know what we can do for them.”
“As quick as lightning, compared to their colleagues”
Margit Spaak, science journalist for the ANP (the Netherlands national news agency), on the Press and Science Communication department
“I have quite a lot of dealings with the Press and Science Communication department at Maastricht University. A department of this kind is very important for my work. For a start, they send me overviews of the PhD defences, inaugural lectures and other events at Maastricht University.That helps me to stay up to date. And if I find something interesting, they’re very quick to send me additional information. As quick as lightning, compared to their counterparts at other universities. I sometimes call researchers directly, but more often I use them as intermediaries. That’s very handy, because it’s often extremely difficult to find someone within an organisation like a university.They’ll track down a mobile number for me in no time, and let the scientist in question know that I’ll be calling them.”