The additional beauty of opportunistic media is that it doesn't necessarily require a media release or opinion editorial. If you have developed good media contacts — as most of us in science communications have — then it is often simply a matter of a telephone call.
The potential for opportunistic media is one of the key reasons I start every day reading stories across a range of media outlets.
A great example of this at my end is Dr Erik van Sebille (pictured above). He is an early career research who specialises in ocean currents and drift. In January last year he came to me and said he would like to develop his profile as a science communicator as well as a researcher. From that moment on, we put in place a plan that included opportunistic media. I will talk in more detail about how we developed Erik and another researcher as expert media commentators in a later post.
However, I have highlighted Erik at this point because, of all the people I have worked with in science communications, he has undoubtedly grasped the importance of opportunistic media better than anyone else. Here are two quick and recent examples.
In February, a castaway, Jose Salavador Alvarenga, washed up on a beach in the Marshall Islands after being lost at sea for eight months. The eyes of the world were very quickly on this story. Even though I was away at a conference, I had a phone discussion with Erik about the castaway and asked him, in his professional opinion, if the timing and locations sounded plausible. Erik confirmed they were and then added, had the castaway missed the Marshall Islands he would have drifted back out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
In one discussion we had a story. Erik and I made some phone calls and his comments quickly appeared online. After that, he was contacted by media agencies from around the world.
In March, we had and still continue to have an enormous amount of focus on the Malaysian Airlines MH370 crash in the southern Indian Ocean. The moment debris were identified, the importance of drift and currents in that part of the ocean became a key part of the reporting. Erik had the added advantage that he had been in a similar area aboard another ship just three months before. With a few quick phone calls we, again, had an opportunity to talk about the science of ocean drift in a very public space.
Our quick response meant Erik featured in literally thousands of stories in leading outlets around the world. He has also been contacted by other researchers in his field. They are sharing their research with him and he is talking about those institutions and the work they are doing during his interviews.
At the same time, his profile as an expert in ocean dynamics and drift has grown again. It is almost certain that if another story appears that requires commentary around ocean drift he will get a call from national and international media organisations as soon as the story breaks
This series of results by Erik is in stark contrast to the response around the Akademik Shokalskiy when it got caught in Antarctic ice over the Christmas and New Year period. This was a golden opportunity for scientists specialising in the cryosphere to talk about ice behaviour and the research they were doing in Antarctica at a time of year when media outlets are desperately seeking any news. Incredibly, this opportunity was deferred and instead the scientists talked only in critical terms about the expedition.
As a result, despite 50 years of research being carried out in Antarctica, few members of the public are any the wiser about what is going on down there. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with criticising the expedition but there was an enormous opportunity to talk about science, Antarctic research and develop someone as an expert speaker on the Antarctic. None of this happened. It was a wasted opportunity.
One final comment, it is important to remember that when these opportunities appear we do not simply throw our experts to the media and expect them to perform well. Erik and I always discussed the points he wanted to make and always made sure he expressed those points during interviews with a range of snappy, tailored to media quotes. In short, even though we were responding rapidly to a developing situation, the media 101 rules still applied, especially the three P's — prepare, prepare, prepare.
If you are seriously trying to develop a profile for an expert, once you are comfortable with their performance in a public space, opportunistic media should be a key part of that development. This same approach should also apply to a private company or a research institution. If opportunity is knocking, get there first and open the door.