In my spare time I’m a bit of a film buff, so naturally I was absolutely thrilled to be asked by the Film Section of the UK Critics’ Circle to tweet live from the red carpet and press room at their annual London Film Critics Circle Awards – what an honour!
Jean Dujardin and Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
When the news broke on Friday that a new Icelandic eruption could be on the way ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-15995845a new Icelandic eruption could be on the way), it didn’t take long for it to spread.
This hasn’t always been the case. In its early years, the physics of geological communication was simple – involving nothing more than oscillations of pressure transmitted through a gas – talking.
‘We are forming a little talking Geological Dinner Club, of which I hope you will be a member’
wrote Humphrey Davy on November 13 1807, to WH Pepys.
Among those present at that dinner, held at the Freemasons Tavern in Great Queen Street, were Authur Aikin, James Frank, Davy, Pepys and Greenough. This was a time of exceptional scientific discovery, fuelled by controversies, excitement and professional skulduggery. At this time there we just a handful of professional geologists but knowledge of geology was relatively widespread and “men of culture and wide sympathies” developed the science.
And as the young society began to flourish so the heroes emerged – amongst them Buckland, Lyell, Murchison, Sedgwick, Sabine and De La Beche. Mass communication this was not; rather a rarefied conversation between the elite for the elite in a world where science and religion were locked in combat for supremacy. Some things never change.
In 1815, 8 years after the foundation of the society, Tambora volcano erupted (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Tambora). Today, very few outside the profession have ever heard of Tambora, although a few more may have marvelled at the paintings of Turner depicting sunsets that capture the atmospheric effects of the VEI 7 eruption. But who has not heard of Krakatoa (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krakatoa) - famously East of Java according to the Disney Corporation – that erupted in 1883? What happened in the intervening 68 years since Tambora, an eruption many times more powerful?
Communication – not through the spoken word in close proximity but the development of a new and revolutionary technology – the Telegraph. It is wrong to imply that the internet was the first to network the planet globally. It was the cable network that linked Jakarta with Paris and London, that allowed the news of a volcanic eruption far far away to make the front pages of the morning editions across Europe.
And since that time we have not even stopped to pause. The Wireless, television – for the last 80 years these technologies have been the dominant mass communication tools. But today they themselves are being challenged by new and disruptive technologies. The internet yes, but only as a vehicle for social networking sites. Facebook, Blogs, Twitter, words not invented 10 years ago now rule the communications roost. And the society must move, as it is doing, to embrace these forms of communication, and stay relevant in the 21st century. In my own small way I have made a contribution – the first to embed a video in the Geological Society’s blog, in this case a summit eruption on Stromboli http://blog.geolsoc.org.uk/2011/09/28/filming-on-location-etna-stromboli-and-smelly-tshirts/
How would our founding fathers have reacted? Would “men of culture and wide sympathies” have embraced Web 2.0 or recoiled in horror? We will never know. But imagine if Darwin had taken an iPhone on the Beagle. Or Hutton had reported his observations on Siccar point live to the Society on Skype. Technology offers our science unparalleled ways to communicate to audiences across the world in ways unimaginable to our Founding Fathers. And so it is that future communications technologies will be delivered in ways unimaginable to us now.
In his address after being appointed Woodwarian chair of geology at Cambridge, Sedgwick claimed he would leave “no stone unturned” in his pursuit of his science. I suggest we, as a learned Society, leave no technology unturned in our pursuit to communicate the science we love to the widest of all possible audiences.
Adapted from my after dinner speech at the Geological Society’s Founders Day dinner, held on 10 November, and first published on http://blog.geolsoc.org.uk/2011/12/05/communicating-geology-in-the-digital-age/ on 5 December 2011
One of the greatest challenges in PR can be negotiating and managing client expectations. The client usually (and understandably) wants to be presented positively in the most high level and prominent media available.
This is excellent news if, at the same time, they are willing to consider the equally demanding needs of national journalists and editors who are rarely wowed by the latest announcement of a new widget, appointment, building or VIP visit.
Consider for a moment that there are more than 100 other universities across the UK who can, and do, try telling a similar story every week on all of these fronts. It takes time, creativity and teamwork to achieve the end goal and like most success, this stuff is hard work.
Some see the job of PR as simply placing whatever has been provided into prominent press. “Over to you” as a sign-off from those who want to sit back and watch the grateful coverage start rolling in spells immediate trouble.
While we all might be interested, excited, or proud of something, media are under no obligation to feel the same way. ‘Non-stories’ have to be identified and removed at the earliest stages by developing an objective acceptance that media have their own agenda, interests and audiences to satisfy.
So what exactly is ‘news’ and how can we work together to become a part of it? While there are exceptions to the rule, news can be defined as featuring the following key ingredients (the more boxes ticked the better its chances): It’s something ‘new, topical, unique, quirky, timely, informative, entertaining, dramatic, or controversial.’
Ideally the story is supported by interesting and/or high profile spokespeople with a fascinating or insightful opinion. Also, is there a strong accompanying visual image (think TV or newspapers)? Finally, once these points are addressed, the story might ideally be served on an ‘exclusive’ basis, which makes it worth thinking carefully about which media might be approached first.
Effective PR assists this process by advising on and supporting the development of appropriate news for both parties – the client and editor/journalist. This also necessitates strong media contacts, and a speedy and honest communications service which makes the connections and satisfies everyone’s requirements.
So how can you work with the Press Office team so we can better help communicate yours and the University’s achievements and goals? Here are a few simple guidelines:
- In the first instance, tell us your idea in brief – consider ‘who, what, why, where and when’. If you want to informally discuss a story’s potential just drop us a line
- Consider the newsworthy criteria already mentioned – who might your story matter to or impact upon the most? Is it genuinely new or unique?
- Talk to the Press Office in good time. We’re all busy, but if you know something fantastic might be happening in a month’s time, tell us and we can consider the best options and plan the process with you
- Don’t be ‘shy’ about approaching us. We often uncover some of the best stories when chatting informally with colleagues, but we’re limited in how much time can be devoted to this. The help you provide is vital.
Most importantly, we need you to tell ‘our’ story as an institution. The academic expert and specialist in your field of study, the student or graduate, the researcher, the lecturer, the higher education facilitator or support staff member – without you there is no story to tell, no narrative to communicate and no reputation to build upon.
What is a social enterprise and why should UK universities take notice? Social enterprises can be defined as organisations that use business methods to make profit for reinvestment in order to achieve a social mission, and not neccessarily shareholder gain. This makes them different from charities and mutuals, and could be used as inspiration for universities.
This academic year has started strong for the University – as well as the announcement of our involvement in the Waterside Enterprise Zone in Northampton, we were delighted with the news that the Department for Education has approved two new University Technical Colleges within the county, of which we’ll play a large role. The two UTCs, which are designed to offer 14 – 19 years olds an opportunity to take full-time, technically orientated courses alongside top level work experience opportunities with significant regional employers, are due to be open by 2013 and will cater for over 500 pupils each.
University Technical College for New Technologies, Daventry, will allow pupils to specialise in a vocational curriculum in sustainable new technologies, whilst Silverstone Academy – in the heart of Motorsport Valley – will have pupils training for careers in motorsport, high performance engineering and events management. Traditional core GCSE subjects will still be taught but these initiatives will allow pupils to study in a practice-based way, focussing them on specific career paths and increasing their employability prospects.
So why is The University of Northampton involved? Don’t we teach 18+? The University is a great believer in ‘lifelong learning’ – we have a large cohort of mature students, one of our graduates being 88 years young! But there’s no reason why lifelong learning shouldn’t start even earlier for the higher education sector – we reach out to prospective students in schools and colleges through dedicated activities, and the UTCs will see us directly helping to shape the lives of young people across the county with a firm academic base for the proposed curriculum, and through student mentoring and encouragement of entrepreneurship and business skills. We are making closer links between school age, further and higher education, and UTC students may choose to study further with us, a partner or another higher education institution.
We are a University with established teaching and research excellence – our Schools of Education and Science and Technology are well known for their excellence in mathematics, education, environment-based disciplines and science teaching and will bring much experience and knowledge to the UTCs.
There is also the important issue of skills, especially those that are the kind that employers want and will make sure students end up in jobs. A key theme of UTCs are that employers have direct input into the curriculum, making sure that what is taught is relevant directly to the world of work and the wider economy in general.
Strategically, the UTCs also make sense for us – we are involved with two out of our four partner colleges – Moulton College, the lead sponsor of UTC New Technologies, Daventry and Tresham College of Further and Higher Education with UTC Silverstone. Silverstone Circuits we already have excellent links with – only recently our Journalism students were involved with a competition on-site with them at the British Touring Car Championship – and we work closely with other key partners for the UTCs; Daventry District Council, Northamptonshire County Council, West Northants Development Corporation, and the Daventry Learning Partnership. We look forward to developing closer relationships with all the employer partners involved in the UTCs. These are great developments for the county involving major names and we are proud to be supporting them and helping students achieve their potential at this level of study.
First published in Northampton Herald & Post, 27 October 2011
In these modern times of tweeting and social networking, the news agenda has changed – stories are almost ‘old news’ now by the time they appear in print, unless you offer an exclusive or a different angle/opinion piece to news that has gone out to the masses.
It’s said that news doesn’t break anymore, it ‘tweets’ and I certainly look to Twitter for an immediate source of news. The social network works almost like Chinese Whispers – we hear something, we retweet. We’ve seen its power in spreading urgent news about situations such as the horrific incidents in Norway by Breivik, the summer riots and the ongoing crisis in Libya, as well as for doing good for fundraising and supporting good causes. We’ve also witnessed how false rumours can spread like wildfire, such as fake celebrity death reports and scandal which people have come out to defend.
PRs are increasingly embracing Twitter as the first point of contact to a journalist for their news story angles. The media like a short, to the point pitch – what better way to do this than 140 characters?! It cuts out the waffle – something a lot of PRs are guilty of. When you contact a journalist, you need your pitch honed and know what they want as a journalist. All journos fear the ‘Have you got my press release?’ ring-around that PRs are ‘trained’ to do from an agency background. It still fills me with horror – any good PR knows that this is rule no 1 of what NOT to do!
Some may say that a tweet is lazy, but it’s knowing what to do next that matters. Yes, anyone can tweet but what do you do next when the journalist is interested in covering your story? That’s where your experience in the industry and professionalism plays a big part.
Journalists are looking for news on Twitter and social media as this is where breaking news is. A 1 1/2 page press release is becoming redundant as the way to contact media when you have a story – sure, have it there as background information if a journalist is interested in following up as your overall ‘package’, or for your own corporate uses on your website or for other promotion, but nothing beats initial contact more than a tweet, a short email pitch or even, gasp, a phone call! How prehistoric!
It is hard sometimes to overestimate the amount of time spent faffing around when making a documentary (or any kind of filming for that matter).
I have just returned from being on location in southern Italy making a documentary commissioned by National Geographic and produced by Pioneer Productions, a UK firm run out of London and set up by an ex geologist. The series, a three parter, will ( probably) be called Birth of Europe and follows on from Birth of Britain screened in spring 2011.
The series is themed around Water, Ice and Fire. I am doing the Fire bit which, not surprisingly, focusses on volcanoes. In Europe that means two places – Iceland and The Med. The latter is our brief, with the usual suspects on show: Etna, Stromboli and Vesuvius.
And therein lies the first problem – these volcanoes have pretty much been done to death. Finding something new to say about them is a real challenge. In part, the industry relies on the fact that viewers have little or no recall of previous similar shows and are drawn in by the spectacle. That bit rests with the director and film crew who do know what has been done before and feel pressure to go the extra mile (literally) to get that money shot that makes the series.
But at times even Nature herself seems to have had enough of these intrusions. An unseasonal storm ruined best laid plans to film on Etna (although we did manage to get some good stuff), but I had to pretend that the lower slopes of Stromboli are the former, and don the same stinking t-shirt from Sunday to finish the shot. Oh well, it’s only basalt! Then there is the human factor, things get lost, batteries go flat, wires fail to connect, taxis are late, language problems, retakes, presenters screw up, more retakes, storm on way, camera lens lost, too dark, too light, too windy, too hot/wet/cold (delete as appropriate) – all in the knowledge that at the end of a 12 hour day we might have between 5 and 7 minutes of useable TV.
It is mostly hard physical work and we take risks that sometimes feel reckless. And here’s the best bit: I don’t even get paid, unless you count the 25 euros per dium. So why do I do it? Probably flattery and vanity have something to do with it, but that’s not the whole story. Despite my desk-bound day job, at heart I am still a geologist, and I miss the field work, the excitement of seeing nature at work. Beyond that, I still believe in the importance of science communication in a world where irrationalism and anti-science rhetoric appear to be on the rise.
This blog was originally published on the Geographical Society of London blog (28/09/11) – http://geolsoc.wordpress.com/2011/09/28/filming-on-location-etna-stromboli-and-smelly-tshirts/
Universities need research funding. Indeed, I would argue that they need more of it if the country is to realise the full economic and social potential of the excellent research that is done in our higher education institutions – and not just those in the Russell Group.
Universities need investment funding, such as the Higher Education Innovation Fund, so they can pump prime innovations and entrepreneurial initiatives. In Northampton we are deploying our fund allocation to ensure we can deliver our unique social enterprise mission. Other universities use their allocation in other imaginative ways, investing in the delivery of future economic benefits to the country as a whole.
If research and investment funding are ‘project funding’ – and I am not sure they are – then universities need it. What I mean by project funding is money that is won by or given to universities (and other organisations of course) to deliver some form of discrete, non-research project. The now defunct Regional Development Agencies and the European Social Fund have both been sources of large amounts of project funding.
I have a problem with project funding – it comes with a requirement to deliver outputs and outcomes. These outputs and outcomes have to be defined in advance and a detailed plan for their delivery has to be submitted with the project bid. Of course, it is inevitable and proper that the custodians of taxpayers’ money (which is what project funding really is) strive to get the maximum benefit from its expenditure. However, the mechanistic use of outputs and outcomes as targets has two potentially negative effects. First, targets drive behaviour, and this frequently leads to project delivery teams doing things to hit outputs, rather than deliver lasting and real benefit. One of Northampton’s recent PhD students concluded that the funded project she studied (a multi-million pound, regional scheme) had “delivered results that were good for the contract, but negative for the clients”! Second, and more importantly, targets often stifle enterprise and entrepreneurship.
In June this year, The University of Northampton unveiled its new strategy that commits the whole institution to developing social entrepreneurs and social enterprises. It is a very ambitious strategy, involving whole organisation change and huge investments of expertise and capital in setting up new social enterprises, designed to directly improve the lives of people – socially, economically, environmentally and culturally. We have deliberately not sought project funding to help us deliver our mission.
Social enterprises are businesses. They are different from normal businesses in that they have a social purpose and aim to deliver social impact. But they are a business and, unless they are led by customer focused, hard-working, creative, dynamic and flexible entrepreneurs, they go bust. If social enterprises go bust, they can’t do good. What Northampton needs to be a successful, high-impact, socially enterprising university is just about the opposite of what you often get with funded projects.
We will be seeking investment in some of our new social enterprise ventures, but we will be seeking it from the market. Who needs project funding? Not the socially enterprising University.
This blog was originally published on The Guardian Online’s Higher Education Network (26/09/2011) – http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/sep/26/university-project-funding-social-entrepreneurship?INTCMP=SRCH
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