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How #tweetyourthesis can help academics prepare for media interviews

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

The #tweetyourthesis hashtag has been doing the social media rounds in higher education since it was coined by Susan Greenberg, a lecturer at Roehampton in 2012. Or that’s what my own very cursory and possibly unreliable Google-based research tells me. Whatever the hashtag’s origin, it quickly caught on as a way of letting off a bit of steam between postgrads to relieve the pain of knocking out (😭) a 50,000 word research paper. But after spending an enjoyable and productive afternoon media training scientists at the University of Birmingham (including a PhD student about to start writing up her thesis), it struck me that this harmless bit of fun is a brilliant way of helping prepare all academics for media interviews whether they’re talking about their actual theses or some other research.

Why? Because turning your thesis into a Tweet (even if you don’t publish it) can help you synthesise what your research is about from a layperson’s perspective and become a better communicator to external audiences as a result. After all, #sciencecommunication is vitally important but that’s another hashtag! Back to #tweetyourthesis …

It’s a highly reductive process. Turning 50,000 words or more into 280 characters or fewer is a challenge. But doing media is a challenge. Not least because it too is a highly reductive process with that 20 minute interview (at 3 words per second approximately 3,600 words) being edited down to a 20 second soundbite (of about 60 words). So better get used to it before the interview and, if you actually #tweetyourthesis , crowdsource advice from others who’ve been there, done that, got the Today programme tee shirt (it has a picture of John Humphries on the front and a Rottweiler on the back).

Here at ACM Training I use a planning matrix to help academics (and others for that matter) prepare for interviews. It sounds rather lofty and students of a certain age are often disappointed when I don’t conjure Keanu Reeves from my training tool box. But when all is said and done it’s simply a piece of paper or screen divided into three columns. Column one is where you jot down the three most important features of your research – let’s call them key messages. These shouldn’t necessarily be what’s most interesting to you but what’s most interesting from the audience’s perspective. Column two is where you choose up to three facts or figures to evidence those messages. And column three is for the narrative or stories that provide illustration. Think of column one aiding brevity, column two understanding or rationality, column three the emotionally engaging stuff and all three together the clarity and relevance. I then ask my trainees to practice extemporising a series of 20-30″ soundbites from their matrices using the stopwatch or countdown timer on their smartphones to keep them honest.

I like playing #tweetyourthesis too, although, of course, I wouldn’t dream of actually Tweeting your thesis (and I haven’t started mine yet). So here’s my effort at taking the editor’s proverbial red pen to the academics I met earlier this week. You know who you are. And, if I’ve done a half decent job, your colleagues should recognise you from what I’ve written. Feel free to copy, paste and Tweet what follows from your own social media accounts – using the #tweetyourthesis hashtag, naturally. Or, better still, come up with your own version and Tweet that instead.

A quantum clock so accurate if you set it to midnight at Big Bang it’d only be a second out nearly 14 billion years later. (That’s today). One that potentially could make navigation systems more accurate especially in remote areas hidden from the gaze of satellites. [266 characters]

Birmingham University quantum physicist

A contact lens-size sticking plaster with tiny grooves on its surface that encourages collagen (think human scaffolding) to heal without scarring, could save the sight of million and reduce the physiological and psychological impact of other scars. [248 characters]

Birmingham University biochemical engineer

Atoms harnessed to measure tiny changes in gravity to help us “see” below the surface. Like Newton’s apple but smaller and colder. Research that could be applied to roadworks and save us hours sitting in avoidable traffic jams and £ millions in lost productivity. [263 characters]

Birmingham University metrologist

It’s worth noting the #tweetyourthesis hashtag started when Tweets were limited to 140 characters. Now you’ve got 280. Easy innit?

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Blogging – the perfect excuse for working from home

Approx. reading time: < 1 minute
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The #Gatwick #drone part 2 – what the policeman should have said

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. And yes, it’s easy to be wise after the event. But in my previous post on the Gatwick drone incident I promised I’d suggest an alternative – and hopefully better – response to the one that prompted lurid headlines and landed Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley in hot water with his Chief Constable and the Government.

The BBC News presenter asked him, you may remember, what turned out to be a trick question: “Are you even considering the possibility that there may not have been genuine drone sightings in the first place?”

By answering it the way he did – conceding the point – Det Ch Supt Tingley set a proverbial hare running which proved hard to stop. Denying the journalist’s contention outright wouldn’t have been advisable either because (mixing metaphors hopelessly) he’d have boxed himself into a corner if it turned out there wasn’t, in fact, a drone. My version doesn’t ignore the question but lets the facts speak for themselves and, in turn, allows the audience to draw its own conclusions.

Police officer:  “We’re investigating more than a hundred sightings – not just from members of the public but from police officers and airport staff too. Some of those sightings may, of course, be duplicates (several different people reporting the same thing). Some may be genuine mistakes (people seeing what they think is a drone but which turns out to have been something else – a bird of prey for example). Some could be made up for malicious reasons. But all that said we have to act on the information given.

“Aviation is, quite rightly, a risk-averse industry. A collision between an aircraft and a drone could be calamitous. So we have a duty to do all we can to keep people safe. We exercise what we call the precautionary principle – better safe than sorry in other words. Now I understand that the impact of all this is huge and I’d like to add my apologies to those of the airport and airlines for the disruption caused. I’d also like to thank the public for their continued patience and understanding. I’d like to pay tribute to my police colleagues, airport and airline staff, the Civil Aviation Authority and now the Army for their hard work in getting Gatwick back to normal as soon as it’s safe to do so. And I’d like to reiterate my determination to bring those responsible to justice. Let me be absolutely clear. We are investigating a crime.”

Compare this to what Det Ch Supt Tingley actually said.

Now I fully accept I had several hours to carefully consider my response compared to the detective who almost certainly only had several minutes and was also shouldering heavy responsibilities as the SIO (senior investigating officer). That said the purpose of media and crisis communications training it to have the benefit of foresight. Foresight, of course, is not as good and never as accurate as hindsight but it’s certainly better than being blind-sided. Plan for the worst, hope for the best and be flexible.

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Schrödinger’s drone – three crisis comms lessons from the Gatwick closure

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley probably didn’t have the best of breaks. He’s the Sussex police officer who admitted in an interview just before Christmas that there may not have been a drone at all – despite the numerous reported sightings that brought Gatwick Airport to a standstill over two days, disrupted 1,000 flights and affected 140,000 passengers.

Following a hastily arranged conference call with Government ministers, Tingley’s remark was explained away as “poor communications.” His press office issued a clarification. And then his boss, Sussex Chief Constable Giles York, appeared to contradict him, stating on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I am absolutely certain a drone was flying throughout the period the airport was closed.”

Giles went on to say that his officer “was trying to describe an investigative approach, that asks ‘how can we prove the presence of the drone in the first place?’” But he conceded Tingley’s remark had “amplified the chaos” surrounding the incident.

So what can be learned from the curious incident of the drone which, not unlike Schrödinger’s Cat, appears simultaneously to have been both present and not present? Here’s my analysis of the original exchange on BBC News and three lessons for all of us involved in media, PR and communications. Once you’ve had a look a what I have to say please subscribe to our blog and the ACM Training YouTube channel (if you haven’t already).

So what should the Detective Chief Super have said? I’ll be making a suggestion or two in the next post.


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#O2down – 11 crisis comms lessons from the mobile company’s data outage

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

I was one of the estimated 32 million customers affected by O2’s data outage. And like many of those customers I took to Twitter under the hash tag #O2down. But in my case not to criticise the company. No, I wanted to thank O2 for providing me with a crisis communications case study. There’s a lot, I believe, other organisations  can learn from its approach – whatever sector they’re in: high tech, low tech; for profit, not-for-profit.

  1. Acknowledge there’s a problem as soon as it’s evident there is a problem. These days there’s nowhere to hide – especially for data companies like O2 whose very business model is information exchange.
  2. Monitor social media. For bigger organisations at least, keeping an eye on social is a great way of staying as close to the proverbial curve as possible (despite what others may tell you keeping ahead of it is nigh on impossible in crisis comms).  In our always-on world (or nearly  always on in O2’s case) the initial indication of trouble often comes from customers rather than from colleagues.
  3. Apologise. Saying sorry costs nothing. Not saying sorry costs a whole heap more in the long run. Saying sorry isn’t an admission of guilt. It’s a strength, not a weakness. And, contrary to popular belief, it won’t make a scrap of difference if or when it comes to litigation. In fact, damages are likely to be lower as a consequence of an early apology. 
  4. Don’t blame. Nobody likes a snitch so blaming somebody else for your travails will only exacerbate the problem. In O2’s case it looks as if the problem was with expired software licences at one of its suppliers, Ericsson. So it might have been tempting for the company to say, in effect, “not our fault guv.” But I heard nobody from O2 say anything of the sort. That said O2 didn’t hide the fact that Ericsson was involved which leads on to my  next point…
  5. Be open and honest. Don’t dissemble. Keep your “customers” (or other stakeholders) in the loop. Let them know what you know as you know it. And also let them know what you don’t know. I know this sounds suspiciously Rumsfeldian but there’s no shame in the  early stages of a crisis not to have the complete picture. It’s the inevitable fog of war. There is shame, however, in holding back important information like the loss of sensitive customer data. You don’t want them to feel as if critical information has been dragged from you. 
  6. Actions speak louder than words. Words are all very well but they can sound rather hollow if they’re not backed up with action. O2 apologised almost immediately (see point 3) but very quickly followed that up with an offer of compensation. Now that doesn’t just sound like sorry if feels like sorry too.
  7. Be generous. Most of O2’s customers lost only a day’s data. But they were offered two days worth of credit as a gesture of goodwill. That’s likely cost the company millions of pounds more than if it only made up for the actual loss. Now, it may yet recover the cost from Ericsson so you could argue it’s being generous with somebody else’s money. But nonetheless this goodwill will almost certainly be worth every penny. And while we’re on the subject, offer compensation (it doesn’t have to be financial) before it’s demanded. 
  8. Get the tone right. It’s not just what you say but how you say it. Saying sorry through gritted teeth grates. So does telling people you’re being open an honest with them but with your arms folded firmly across your chest. Your verbal, para-verbal and non-verbal communication are pulling in different directions.  Have some humility. Don’t be overly apologetic (it can sound insincere). But don’t be flippant either. O2 made sure its communication – digital and analogue – struck the right tone, walking the fine line between light  (on social especially) and heavy. The outage was inconvenient for most, serious for some. But ultimately nobody died and the tone conveyed that.
  9. Don’t overpromise. It’d be crazy for O2 to tell us it won’t happen again. But the company made it clear it had learned from the situation conveying the more realistic and credible message that it’s less likely to happen again.
  10. Don’t under do the thanks. Thank your customers for their patience and understanding. Thank your staff for working hard to resolve the problem. Even thank your suppliers – even if they were to blame (see point 4)!
  11. Turn a negative into a PR positive. The episode will end up costing O2 and Ericsson millions. Giffgaff (one of the smaller providers affected) has made it easy for it’s customers to donate their compensation directly to charity. It won’t change the Giffgaff bill – its financial capital will decrease. But its social capital will increase. Smart move. Cost neutral. PR positive.

This post is also available as a podcast in ACM Training’s Five Minute Masterclass series. You can listen to the original there or below.


If you’d like to join Richard at his next open, public, crisis communications workshop in either London or Manchester he’d love to see you. And as a follower of the ACM Training blog you can book your place for just £99 between now and December 31st – a Christmas saving of £80.

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When Lightning Strikes

Approx. reading time: < 1 minute

Approx listening time: 28 minutes.

In October 2005 Allan MacDiarmid was struck by lightning as he played football with a group of friends near Sudbury in Suffolk. Amazingly he survived with barely a scratch. Combining Allan’s extraordinary testimony with the latest scientific thinking and the work of amateur storm chasers, What Happens When Lightning Strikes deconstructs the moments before and after he was hit by the blinding flash in an effort to better understand one of the most powerful forces in nature.

This podcast was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

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When Madmen Sailed the World

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Approx listening time: 28 minutes

“When Madmen Sailed the World” – a look back at the extraordinary events of 1968 when nine yachtsmen set out to become the first person to sail non-stop, single-handed around the world. Only one made it, as yachting journalist, Bob Fisher, recalls

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Still Joined

Approx. reading time: < 1 minute

Approx listening time: 28 minutes

The moving and inspirational story of Lori and Reba* Schappell, the world’s oldest surviving female conjoined twins. Fiercely independent, they argue passionately against the current medical trend for separation. And, as Richard Uridge discovers, if you think of them as anything other than two very different individuals you’d better watch out!

This podcast was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

* Since this programme was made Reba has identified as male and is now know as George. They continue to live in Pennsylvania.

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Who Goes First?

Approx. reading time: < 1 minute

Approx listening time: 28 minutes

Should scientists be able to act as “Guinea pigs” in their own experiments? Self-experimentation has a long and often bizarre history, from the scientist who drove into a “brick wall” at a hundred miles an hour, to the doctor who swallowed his patients (or at least a part of them). And that’s not to mention the modern day Jekyll and Hyde with a three and a half thousand mile long body. Richard Uridge explores the arguments for and against with the help of scientists who have experimented on themselves and have the scars to prove it.

This podcast was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

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Death of the Building Site

Approx. reading time: < 1 minute

Approx. listening time: 30 minutes

Richard Uridge discovers if bricks and mortar have finally had their day and asks what the future holds for the construction industry.

This podcast was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4.