Dan Grushkin Genspace

An incomplete guide to dealing with the media.

So, a little bit about myself very quickly. I write for a number of publications. I used to write for The Scientist. I write for Business Week, Nature publications. I am one of the co-founders of Genspace. It started in my living room. So, moving right along.

Why is the media important? Why are they my friends and why should we deal with them? The media is our outlet to the public world. The internet is your way of sending out messages, but the media has a much wider audience. So either they reflect public opinion or they create public opinion. That's pretty obvious isn't it?

The thing is, you could want the media to present your way of viewing the world. They're not going to. The journalist has their own POV, the editor has his own POV, you can do a number of things, but ultimately the journalist is his own being. That's actually a good thing. If you are a corrupt politician, and the media was in your hansd, that would be bad for the rest of us.

The other thing that I have discovered at Genspace is that you can get a lot of attention. It's still not clear that a group like Genspace how exactly that gets monetized. How do you turn that into money for your organization to continue running? Let's move along.

What is the journalist looking for? The journalist needs to be able to tell a story, needs to say here's something that's spectacular. This is giong to change, destroy or improve everything. That's your perfect story as a journalist. When he looks at you and your work, how is ti going to work or improveo r change everything? You know that in your lab it might not be that extreme, but that's the story that is going to sell. You want people to look at your article. The more impressive whatever ti is your writing about, the more eyes you are going to get on that piece.

The thing that is really interesting that we found is that because we're amateurs or this new movement, amateurs isn't the right word is it Ellen, because we're this new movement, everything we do is under scrutiny. This is a good thing because it means anything that we do that is good almost automatically gets coverage. Any small accomplishment that is big to us, or small to the science world, is newsworthy. We've seen this with the openpcr, dremelfuge, or gel boxes. The thing that brings journalists to us is that we're not scientists, we're doing it in an unconventional setting.

That said, education is nice. Show them that we're teaching students, people and laypeople about the science. But if you make something, that's when the journalists get excited. It doesn't have to be spectacular, just has to be something new. We've been following, or since we started, we've been watching the news cycle around us. Essentially it's a pendulum. At first there was something scary sounding, like the frakenstein title, or the biotech in the basement, or the geneticist in the garage are they going to destroy everything?

That's where we started. It swung back recently when our lab opened and when BioCurious opened it up.. the bottom headline.. "Fuhgeddabouddit". Gespace or community biotech is in all places a fashion in style. That's just bizarre- it's chic tot he geek. You got Wired excited about it. We had Discover Magazine and Science Magazine.

More recently we had this bird flu issue with H5N1, even though it had nothing to do with us. So we had this article about DIYers making flu virus, and is it possible that DIYbio would make the mockingjay virus. I didn't know about it until I read it... and Ellen was interviewed by PBS, it was about biohacking, but the biohacking that they were talking about was people hacking into software that was related to people's pacemakers, and somehow turning off people's pacemakers, so they somehow got interested in Genspace. It did not make any sense, but we were in the bottom end of that.

Alright, so, where do we go? So, you get a phonecall from, before you even get a phonecall from a journalist, long before the phonecall, there's a cuople of things that yo uneed to have ready and in mind. The first is that you should have someone at your lab, but before the spokesperson, you should have a website up that talks about exactly what you do. That's your outlet to the world. It explains your safety protocols, it explains who you are. That's how the journalist is going to find you.

So, you have your website, you have someone that you designated as your spokesperson who somewhat gets what your lab project is about. The next thing that they need to do to know is to know your safety prtocols. They need to have that down. Because every journalist, doesn't matter what publication or where they are journalizing, this is sort of the questino in everyone's mind, which is: what are your safety protocols? What do you do about safety? If they don't ask you, bring it up anyway.

Be able to explain who can work in your space, explain what they can do. You need to have this down pat. We talked about this a bunch. Genspace has this. Does BioCurious have a biosafety board? Yeah, we have a committee of biosafety folks, Josh is sorta an officer, we have a number of others that we pull- one's a chemist, Eric, genomics people, we have an advisory board but it's not actually split into biosafety.

I highly recommend it. If you have a local university member, and there are professors in every university that are gung-ho about this. If you have someone available to do this, then definitely pull those people together, and say that MIT is on our side and we vet everything through them.

Build a relationship with local law enforcement or your local FBI guy. You should bring up the fact that you're here. These legitimate you.

Before the interviews, very quickly.. know who is interviewing you. Who are they writing for? Who is the editor? The more you know about the publication, the more you know the type of questions that they will ask you, and the better you will be for the interview. You want to prepare for the interview. If you don't have any o those answers, ask the journalist, what is the article about? Most of the time they will be honest about it.

Next thing is note the media climate.. if there's all this bird flu stuff, then this article won't be about the wonderful things you're doing, it's going to be about bird flu. Know that, know what's going on around you.

Next thing, it's okay to decline an interview. I'll give you an example. If you live in SF and someone in New Zealand wants to do an interview, it's not that helpful that someone in NZ is going to publish an article. If you don't have the time, then don't do it. If the article is going to be political, then say no. I also urge you to refer them to someone else. If there's a NZ biohacking group, refer them to them. If there is someone who represents the larger movement in your mind, then go ahead and refer them. Even if you do want to do the interview, refer them to someone else anyway.

There is only a certain number of people that the journalist will do the interviews, then you can load the journalist with your buddies. If they go online and find someone else, then you will lose control of the article.

Prepare for the interview and do some talking points. It sounds weird, but if you write down exactly what you want to say, it will go more smoothly and you won't go for surprise. During the interview, be excited and that will capture the journalist. Be excited and they will be excited too.

The other thing is that it's just common courtesy, if the journalist is coming to your lab or project, invite everyone else to be there as well. It shows that there's a real community spirit and it's nice that other people get to showcase what they are doing.

Nobody speaks for DIYbio. That's actually liberating. If someone asks what DIYbio means, what is that other lab doing, you know what you could say? You could just say you don't represent that lab, and that you only know what you do at this lab. If they do think that you represent the entire movement will take a whole different form, and it becomes much harder.

If you don't know something, admit it. Certainly, don't lie. If you lie or exaggerrate the truth, they will get you the next time and it will blow your credibility and my credibility. Refer them to your partners. Referring them is the most important part. Refer them to anyone you work with. They will want to talk to someone in biosecurity.. refer them to one of your biosecurity people. Anyone can say DIYbio will wreck and destroy the world. You want them interview the people who have a positive spin on it.

After the interview, thank the journalist for coming, thank them for the interest. When it's published, thank them again. It's common courtesy, many of us forget to do it. Post interviwe, you might just get a number of requests flooding in your inbox. If you are interviewed by the Washington Post or NYT, the chances are that people are reading it and will want to contact you. Be prepared for that, have a number of people manning your inbox, or some people might actually want to help out. Know what you need so you can direct them to some extent. You need to think about those questions before the publication.

There is a chance that it will go into a popular publication and it will fizzle. That publication goes on your website and it gives you credibility, you can reference that in the future when another journalist comes your way. If the article is positive and you like it, go ahead and put it up on your website, you're getting readers reading his article, and it's just something taht imrpoves your credibility.

Even if the article gets it wrong, put it up on your blog and criticize it. You have a mouthpiece too. People forget this. So if he gets it wrong, tell the journalist, it's just something you do, contact the editor, write a letter to the editor, chances are that these are monthly publications, radio or television, they aren't going to do anything about it. But again, you do have a voice, and it's okay if nothing happens. There's so much media out there that these articles join the list of the many other articles. That's okay, you can say you were in the PBS news or whatever.

The last bit is courting the media. Say you have invented something really cool, and you have been interviewed before, you were polite and courtious with them, and even if they didn't write a positive article about you, go ahead and tell them that you have done something neat. That personal relationship goes a long way. Press releases are a whole different talk. Building your own word of mouth publicity is also valuable. Tell your friends and tell everyone you know. The journalists are looking for an article that nobody else has written, and if they feel like they have discovered you on their own, it will make them feel so much better about writing the article. Thank you.