Day 334. Crossing to the dark side

In July 2013 on July 11, 2013 at 12:27 pm


Jacqui Hayes plays underwater rugby, considers herself an expert with tandem bikes and is into physics.

She’s also a well-respected Australian science communicator and writer.

Given my recent Venn diagram-like explorations of science communication and science journalism,  I asked Jacqui if she could offer any insights into this world based on her own experiences.

This is what she said:

Crossing to the dark side

No doubt, almost every journalist who takes a role in PR or communications has been accused of “crossing to the dark side”. For me, it took a week. Not long after COSMOS Magazine announced their office would be moving to Melbourne, I started on a short-term contract as a media liaison and science communicator at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA). A week into the new job, and I had my first visiting reporter and I mentioned how, until recently, I’d been working as a science journalist. She looked at me, a bit surprised. And then, she said it: “You’ve crossed to the dark side!”

It’s always said with faux horreur and a cheeky smile. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that in the numerous times since that I’ve heard the phrase, the crossing has only ever been referred to as a one-way transition. No one talks about the PR person who became a journalist. Instead, it’s treated a bit like going through puberty or baking a cake: once it’s done, it’s done, and no amount of wishing can undo those changes.

As I was working for a well-respected medical research institution – as oppose to one of the oft-maligned PR agencies – as often as not, the phrase was followed up with, “but at least you’re working for one of the good ones, right?”

To a certain extent, this is right. When I spoke with members of the public, they were already invested in the research – often they were suffering from a disease being researched at the institute, or they knew someone who was. When I called journalists, I was pitching new knowledge, new trials, new ways of thinking about old problems. I’m sure it takes ungodly persistence and nerves of steel to convince a journalist (or yourself) of the benefits of the product X or a strategic partnership, but luckily neuroscience and medical research, as with much of science, doesn’t require this kind of sales pitch.

In my (albeit limited) experience working in-house, there are some other great aspects to the role I hadn’t appreciated before making the crossing: you get to think creatively about how your story might work across all platforms. Having worked largely in magazines, online, and social media, it was nice to stretch to thinking about how to make a research outcome appealing for television, to think of interesting shots and camera angles (like this one). Depending on the role and which institution you go into, there are opportunities for event management, marketing and broader communications for industry, business development and government. Communicators often end up with a very broad skill set.

I had also thought that there would be fewer stories in house, because instead of working across all of science you are only covering one institution. I was pleasantly surprised to find the process of story discovery as a media liaison and science communicator is really rewarding. There’s far more stories to tell than can ever be told – and often researchers don’t think to tell a communicator about any of their work unless it’s a key publication. You have to dedicate time to building trust and relationships (and communication channels) to get some of these stories, something I couldn’t have done as a journalist.

In the near future, we may face a situation where institutions no longer need the media and journalists: they are slowly building their own audiences, through blogs and social media, and can now talk directly to traditional media’s audience.

In light of this, the role of the science journalist has not been diminished, as you might think, but become more crucial: they cross-check institutional messaging with independent experts; they can tell broader stories, synthesising research across multiple institutions; they can criticise science or individual scientists openly. They are there to defend the reader, not serve an institution.

Even so, as a science journalist who has recently made the crossing, I can say that, all things considered, there is some light on the dark side.

A ScienceforLife.365 guest post by Jacqui Hayes (find her on twitter: @SpaceKangaroo)

  1. […] Crossing to the dark side by Jacqui Hayes […]

  2. […] Crossing to the dark side (Day 334) […]

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