Communicating psychological practice and research to the media

Recommendations and tips on how to effectively communicate psychological research to the media and the public

by Public Relations Staff

March 31, 2011—Many psychologists want to work with the media and become a local or national expert. And the media needs psychologists as credible sources. But when talk about research goes from an interview to publication, facts and details sometimes get lost in translation. How to better work with the media and talk about research was the topic of the State Leadership Conference workshop, “Communicating Psychological Practice and Research to the Public and Media.”

“When psychologists communicate, they love talking about complex information and avoid giving definitive conclusions,” said Wayne Holden, PhD, psychologist and executive vice president of Social, Statistical and Environmental Sciences at RTI International in North Carolina.

And that’s not how reporters, writer, editors—or even the general public—can best work with or understand research.

Holden participated in a panel with health writer Deborah Kotz of the Boston Globe, and Mary Alvord, PhD, public education campaign coordinator for Maryland. Nan Tolbert, a professional communications consultant in Washington, D.C., moderated.

Here are some recommendations and tips from each of the panelists on how to effectively communicate psychological research to the media and the public.

Remember REPAC

When it comes to interviewing with media—whether broadcast, newspaper or online—Dr. Alvord keeps an acronym in mind: REPAC. Always be responsive, ethical, prepared and accurate, and communicate effectively.

Prepare for interviews

For Alvord, that means finding and reading up on the latest relevant research. She searches PsycNet before each interview and does her best to tie the science into her interviews.

The human element to a story is needed

Reporters will ask you for a “real human,” often in the form of a client or patient. That’s not allowed by APA ethics rules. But you can try to help out by providing a family friend or a contact at a local consumer mental health organization or community group. Composites may be okay, said Kotz, as long as you are upfront that you are using one.

Remember your audience

A lot of psychologists struggle explaining information because they worry what their peers and colleagues will think of a simplified quote, Tolbert said. But the publications’ audience is not psychologists. The audience is the general readership, most of whom do not have doctorates.

Explaining research is a balancing act between scientific accuracy and good quotes

Accuracy is important in explaining the research. But also essential is getting the point across simply. Alvord said she always asks herself, “How can we explain this simply? How can we use [research] to give tips to change [people’s] lives?" Kotz said she needs interviewees who are quotable and can speak in soundbites.

Understand what’s newsworthy

Kotz writes a variety of stories for the Boston Globe and its health blog. She tries to a find balance between "pop psychology" and the serious science. But “quirky” stories do often get more page views, she said, which is an important online metric.

Be easy on data and numbers

“Get rid of the graphs and tell stories,” Holden recommended. While the data is an important part of the story, too many numbers can muck up the interview. Reporters are looking for the human element. Readers want to know how the research affects them. Choose one or two important numbers. Let anecdotes and emotions tell the rest of the story, Holden said.

Don’t expect to get a sneak peak of the article or your quotes

“Too many sources want to change their quotes during review,” Kotz said. If you have worked with a publication before that has shown you your quotes in advance, it’s the rare exception.  If you want to reduce the likelihood of being misquoted, make your interview answers brief, clear and concise.

Never lose sight of ethics

Never give up patient confidentiality.  And stick to your areas of competence. If you don’t know about a topic asked by a reporter, refer to colleagues who do. “Professional integrity is more important than getting quoted,” Alvord said.

 

While most of the discussion focused on working with the media, these tips can also be used when presenting information to the public during presentations or community outreach. Much like the audience of a general publication newspaper, magazine or website, the audience of a presentation will connect more with stories, not data and numbers. Keep it simple and accurate and provide information on how the research affects their lives.