Dr Trevor Willis, senior lecturer and course leader of MSc Applied Aquatic Biology, writes about his experience working with the University’s media team.
The wider public is always interested in stories of animals doing unexpected things, and that interest is even greater when the story can be packaged as a vignette – much as David Attenborough does so successfully for BBC documentaries. It helps even more if the animal in question is nice to look at.
With my colleagues in Sicily, and with the help of two undergraduate project students, I recently published such a natural history story in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters. The paper described our investigation into the feeding behaviour of nudibranchs, which are colourful and attractive sea slugs that live and feed upon hydrozoans – colonial invertebrates that are related to corals. Our discovery was that the nudibranchs use the hydrozoans as a fishing rod – being stimulated to feed when plankton are captured, and consuming the hydrozoan polyp along with its erstwhile prey. Imagine a garden snail eating a mosquito by ambushing and eating the spider that had caught it. We called this strategy “kleptopredation”.
When the paper was accepted, I called the press office to see how they felt about putting out a release, and was received with great enthusiasm. Media and communications officer Rachel Jones came to interview me, explaining that she was a non-specialist and I would need to explain everything clearly – just as I would to any lay audience. This worked out brilliantly for all concerned and illustrates how the press office works. I had to think carefully about explaining the work and Rachel put together a release designed to grab the attention of journalists and explain what we had found in the clearest possible way. She then identified media outlets that might be interested and issued the release.
The day the paper was published the story was picked up by the New York Times, and various other US newspapers and websites, as well as the news feed for the journal Science. Within three days I had done a number of interviews for UK outlets as well, including an on-camera piece for BBC South Today. This caused some mirth for my Italian colleagues seeing me talk about a Mediterranean animal while gazing meaningfully across Langstone Harbour.
Media stories are contagious. Italian agencies had given little attention to the press release put out by my co-workers there, but once the story had appeared on UK and US media, we were interviewed by the Rome national daily La Repubblica, and my-coauthor was on his way to Rome for a studio interview on RAI (the Italian version of the BBC). I was also approached by a UK natural history magazine called Biosphere for whom I wrote a feature describing the back story to the work.
It may be coincidence, but I picked up a research grant from the British Ecological Society just after all the media attention, and am now advertising a faculty PhD position. I could not really have asked for better publicity for continuing our work!
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