Speaker Dana Marnane and

TPGA editor & self-advocate Carol Greenburg

This session was geared towards scientists, regarding why it makes sense to learn how to communicate autism science; how to
write a a great article, and how to get your quotes in to articles.
Alison Singer of the Autism Science Foundation put together and chaired this panel. Any errors or omissions are on us. -SR

The speakers:

  • Jane Rubinstein: Media Training 101
  • Karen Weintraub: Working with the Press
  • Dana Marnane: Communicating Directly with Families and Other Stakeholders

JANE RUBINSTEIN, Rubenstein and Associates

Data show that only 58% of academic scientists are involved in media outreach — 78% of women, ~40% of men. 5% of participants created more than 50% of media quotes. Scientists queried cited lack of time as main barrier, but large number felt lack of skills in media relation as primary barrier to media participation.

What is PR? Public Relations secures upped media coverage in outlets including:

  • TV
  • Newspaper/magazines/print
  • Online
  • Radio
  • Social media

Scientists need to embrace all of these sources for getting your message out.

Media Goals

You want to start your research with the premise that you’ll be publishing the results, even if they’re negative. Have to consider that context. You want to get your best message out.

PR vs. Advertising

“PR = placement you pray for, Ads = placement you pay for.”


  • You cannot script for the reporter
  • No control on timin other experts, edition,
  • High credibility


  • High degree of control
  • Less credibility

Plan in advance

How/when/where you announce results: Peer reviewed journal? Conference?


  • Are getting shorter, they do matter, but you have to plan accordingly and carefully.
  • Traditional media will respect the embargo.
  • Blogs typically lack editorial practices [hey! -SR], will violate embargo — so get sign off on embargo with bloggers.

Media matters!

  • Make plan and stick to it!
  • Start Early.
  • Work with your local media and become a “go-to” source. Will pay dividends on your own papers.
  • Publicity is part of publishing & perishing these days.

Maximize Control Over Your Message

Key Messages & Press Releases

  • Key Findings
  • Rules of Three: Have three points you want folks to remember

Reality Check

  • Is this ready for prime time? Ready for curve ball questions? (The media is fascinated by autism, but that’s not enough — you need to show how your work is important.)
  • How do your results advance research?
  • Is your work original, or replicating?
  • “N” factor — how big is your study? That gives it context.


  • LISTEN to the question
    • Pause before answering, take a breath. You’ll appear more engaged.
    • Don’t jumped to answer.
    • Control your head not
    • Take a breath and assemble your response
    • Do NOT fill dead air, they may be trying to lure you off-message

Have a PR person listen in on your call, they can moderate, and can give you feedback & constructive advice.

Don’t hesitate to have your points written down and in front of you on radio/phone interviews!

Getting ready for Interviews

  • Practice, practice, practice, out loud.
  • Increasing your comfort level will allow you to sound more natural.
  • Keep to your talking points.
  • Positive, authoritative.
  • Pivot phrases: phrases that allow you to control transitions — prep for them, e.g., “That’s not my area of expertise, but what I think is most important is…”
  • BE AVAILABLE WHEN THE MEDIA CALLS — do not book up your calendar during the time your results are published! Media is all about deadlines, call back quickly, be responsive, help the reporter do their job and they will be appreciative.

Control Your Interview

  • Don’t presume reporters are prepared
  • Don’t assume just “standard” questions.
  • Keep responses short and to the point, use the “12 second test” — audience won’t get it, will get lost if answer is too long.
  • Keep reporting key messages no matter what, especially with curveball Qs
  • Answer the question you want to answer, not necessarily the question you were asked.
  • Treat every interview as live — be positive, be poised.

Yes, No, I Don’t Know

Yes or No questions — it’s more complicated than that, but what’s important to remember is

“I don’t know” is OK, you can say “let me get back to you,” or “What I can tell you is.”

And if you instead give a referral, you may make a friend with the reporter — you’ll become a go-to source.

Good Techniques and Body Language

  • Better silent than “um”
  • Head Nods – NO NO NO
  • Facial Expressions — TV exaggerates them
  • Do your head movements agree with your message?

Repeat the name of your institution throughout the interview.

If you have lapel pin of your institution, wear it high up — you want to be branded (or have it behind you if possible).


Use your Goodbye as your last tool, e.g., ” Thank you for having me, it was important to explain xxx,”


KAREN WEINTRAUB is a freelance journalist.

Journalists are not all evil, not out to get scientists. They do get excited about new things and stories, want to help people understand our world.

Her goal is to tell a story that’s new, distinct, compelling — and get it on the cover of the NY Times.

Remember: you are a specialist, she is a generalist. Her life is not all about your science, she doesn’t have the time to become a complete expert on your science. She appreciates your passion for your work but she doesn’t have time to consume it all. Don’t expect her to have read all of your papers and books.

Her reality is different than your reality — you are thoughtful and deliberate, she is flying by the seat of her pants — freelancers especially only get paid when they publish.

Different media formats have different needs, but they all hate jargon and acronyms. Do not assume shared knowledge of acronyms!

Most media sources need images, radio needs sound bites; “If I don’t have an image, my story will run lower on the page.”

She’s looking for personal, human stories. Wants to bring them to life. Without personal details the stories aren’t the same.

Reporters need sources who will make their lives easier — sources who will call back, give good quotes, etc.

Distinctions between media types

TV News

  • Hard to find experts, e.g., there are no autism TV specialists.
  • Have very little time to come up to speed. Don’t expect a lot of thought from TV reporters re: the conversation.
  • TV reporters in particular — “all went into journalism school because they’re not good at math” — if you throw numbers at them, they can’t do anything with them. Maybe one pie chart…
  • Extremely dependent on what you say. They can’t fabricate your comments or fill in the gaps. They need to lift your words and put them right int he story. They especially appreciate visual and metaphoric language.
  • Static shots of the lab where you work are not interesting!


  • Also a lot of time pressure. NPR tends to be a bit less stressful re: turnaround, but still high stress. 
  • Requires detailed descriptions — have to create image in peoples’ minds.
  • They need people do be direct.
  • They need pauses in the conversation so they can cut the tape/edit.


  • More likely to find someone who specializes in autism, at least somewhat.
  • Need greater depth and detail, can lift out the parts they need from your interview.
  • Not every sentence has to be quotable, but some. Reports quote personal or visual sentences — the ones that make the story come alive.
  • Need more sources, will ask you to point to other people — it helps the reporter do her job.
  • Weintraub interviews differently for USA Today than for Nature, keep this in mind.

Why should scientists talk to the media?

  • If you’re funded by the federal government or stakeholders, you have a responsibility to communicate your findings.
  • Weintraub has been through the process of helping doctors write books, thinks the process of reviewing the work through a reporter’s eye helps the doctors understand their work better
  • From a superficial level, the more thoughtful you are the easier the journalist’s job is, and that gives you more control over your message.
  • Good interviews, succinct interviews lead to a relationship with the journalist, they’ll come back to you as a resource.

What makes a good story?

  • Much has to do with timing. Is the news currently experiencing doldrums? Or has there just been a major natural disaster?
  • Heroes are great stories (e.g., Matthew Savage graduating from Berkelee College of Music).
  • Sometimes there are games afoot: NY Times downplayed recent CDC numbers announcement because the CDC played favorites, and gave it to the anther source first — NY Times felt it wasn’t “their” story, so they didn’t run it on the front page [Ed note: this is not insider info].
  • Boston Globe also downplayed the CDC numbers story because they don’t have an autism expert. Also not distinctive to Boston.

Why call a reporter back quickly?

  • The first people reporters talk to are the ones who shape the story. Later sources fill in holes.
  • Call back quickly – within an hour/15 min if really big deal/Headline, within a day for a longer feature.

Why does Weintraub look for “critics”?

  • She’s not a science expert, she needs to bounce your info off other people.
  • She uses comments from other scientists to get a deeper understanding of the work in question, and to make sure she’s not being taken advantage of.

How to become a go-to source

  • Be the kind of person who’s easy to reach, reliable, credible.
  • Make sure the reporter knows more about you than your name and title.
  • Build a relationship with the reporter

When to go off the record

  • Ideally, never!
  • Only with reporters you trust and know — or from reputable organizations
  • To explain scientific politics, help the reporter figure out a context they would not learn on their own.

Why Weintraub doesn’t like to show sources their quotes 

  • It takes time
  • Sources want to clutter them up with acronyms and names of colleagues, jargons. She can’t use that.

Why Weintraub can’t show sources whole story aforehand

  •     Violation of journalist ethics
  •     Once her story runs, she doesn’t own it, e.g., she only runs excerpt on her own site.


DANA MARNANE, Autism Speaks

Dana’s talk was geared towards talking with autism families. TPGA editor and self-advocate Carol Greenburg asked Dana a question and talked with her after the session about how best to include autistic people in media coverage — she and Dana agreed that the media has a responsibility to include the expertise of autistic people when they consult “experts” like scientists, and that the media should put more effort into serving as a bridge.

Families want more than the basics. They want to know what they can do right now to help their children. Families think — I can’t change my genes, how can I help my kid? How do we talk to parents?

Common thread among families is isolation. Others truly believe in autism-vaccine causation. Your job should be to acknowledge what they think, but then tell them what you know.


They don’t want:

  • Medical jargon — can be incomprehensible
  • Condescension. Find balance, use lay language, but don’t dumb it down.

They want to know options open to them.

What is Lay Language?

Keep it simple!   

    New, not novel

    To, not “As a means of”

    With, not “In conjunction with”

    “Genetic environment,” not epigenetics

Be able to explain concepts like the difference between Risk vs. Cause, as parents don’t’ always get this.

Parents increasingly use social media

  • Facebook
  • Blogs

Can what you say appear in a blog?

  • Yes. Know your info and translate it for families.

Should you do an interview with a parent blogger?

  • Sure, but nothing is off the record.
  • Also, people will comment.
  • So, who will check that blog? Your University, e.g.?

Consider doing webchats.

Case in point: CDC approach for families after the CDC autism rates were announced:

  •     Advocacy Briefing
  •     Webchat for families
  •     CDC Web Page
  •     Lay Summary
  •     Stories with families — sought these out, to put a friendly face on the #s and bring them into context.