Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Why So Few News Releases at Medical Meetings?

When covering medical meetings became a routine part of my job, I was surprised at how few news releases I found in the press rooms. Sure, the big meetings—the ASCOs, the AHAs, the RSNAs—would have a decent number of news releases, but even those had fewer than I would have expected.

I started my in science writing career in the public relations office of a major university. Part of my job involved writing news releases on important scientific advances. I was pretty successful at this; on a number of occasions articles sparked by my press releases ended up on the front page of the New York Times and other major publications. I discovered that reporters are essentially lazy. If you hand them a tasty morsel on a silver platter, they're more likely to take it than an equally tasty morsel they have to dig for. This is no insult to reporters; we all have a limited amount of time, so it's not surprising that we take the story that's handed to us. Furthermore, reporters are subject to competitive pressures. When there's a news release attached to a research result, I know that my competition is likely to pick up the story, and if they do and I don't, my editor will want to know why we were scooped.

Every university and virtually every hospital in the United States has a public relations, media relations, or public information office. Every one of those offices employs writers whose job is to promote the institution's research. A medium-sized medical meeting will include talks from researchers representing several dozen institutions, and the large medical meetings will include talks from researchers representing hundreds of different institutions. Why then is it unusual for me to find more than a handful of news releases at all but the largest meetings? Here are some possible answers:

  • Most of the research studies presented at medical meetings are not newsworthy. They involve minor advances that are of interest only to a narrow handful of specialists. This is the best excuse a public information officer can give for not issuing a news release. You don't want your institution to become known for issuing news releases on research that is not newsworthy, because reporters will quickly learn to toss all news releases from your institution into the circular file.

But this doesn't explain why so many truly newsworthy studies from institutions with large PR offices are unaccompanied by news releases.

  • There are different levels of newsworthiness. Some studies are of interest to the lay public and the mass media, and PR folks tend to focus on these studies, ignoring studies that would be quite newsworthy to the trade press. To many researchers, having their study covered by Oncology Times (for example) would confer more prestige among their peers than having it covered by the New York Times. (Maybe that's a little bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point.)

  • In my experience, the main reason that PR folks often don't issue news releases to accompany an interesting talk at a medical meeting is that they simply don't know about it. Calling the PR office is often the last thing on a researcher's mind when she's about to present an interesting paper at a meeting. Getting the data together, practicing her talk, and making airline reservations all take priority.

There are several things that a PR person can do about this. She can cultivate relationships with researchers, their postdocs and graduate students, and even departmental secretaries. Merely asking, "Are you going to be presenting any interesting results soon?" will often do the trick.

At big institutions, of course, it won't be possible to cultivate relationships in every lab. But a least one can cultivate relationships in every department. The department chair will often know who's about to present important results.

And it's worthwhile cultivating relationships with the PR folks at the societies sponsoring the major meetings. In a perfect world, those PR folks would be contacting the PR folks at the major universities a month or so before the meeting with a list of all that institution's presenters and the titles of their talks. Some societies, notably the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), have this down to, well, down to a science. But if this isn't a standard part of meeting prep for, say, the American Association for the Advancement of Liposuction, or if their press office sucks (ha), the AAAL PR person can often be persuaded to allow the university PR person advanced access to the meeting program, where she could search for her institution's researchers.

I suppose I've spent an evening in a hotel room writing this this because I'm one of those lazy journalists who loves to find several meaty news releases in the meeting's press room, or better still, on Eurekalert or Newswise a week in advance. Not one institution has issued even a single news release at the meeting I'm at now, even though I've found several very interesting stories from this meeting. This includes the first results from a very large and groundbreaking study from a top university medical center demonstrating the superiority of one surgical technique over another. I think hundreds or thousands of lives may be saved when this result is disseminated throughout the medical community, but as far as I know I'm the only reporter who attended this talk and realized its importance.

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