Connecting European Neuroscience

Behind the scenes at the FENS Forum 2016 Press Centre

The Forum Press Centre in Copenhagen worked quietly and efficiently to help our neuroscientists communicate their research to the media and the outside world. Take a look at what our two Forum press officers do.

Elaine Snell is the Director of Snell Communications, which helps academics, research, and charity, organisations communicate clearly and effectively.  She has been involved in organising the FENS Forum press office, together with a communication expert in the host country, since the inaugural meeting in 1998. 

Local representative Metha Loumann is the director of the public relations agency methamedia. She works in Denmark helping businesses, authorities and other organizations place their stores in the Danish media.

Q1) What is it like to be in charge of the FENS Forum Press Centre?

ES: Journalists really like brain research so this is a wonderful opportunity to promote some of the best and the newest research. 

ML: It’s a lot of fun! Although there are many journalists who know a lot about neuroscience (e.g. from Nature, Science), busy all-round journalists like their news as ‘food that has been chewed’. This year we prepared 17 press releases in advance and translated them into a language everyone can understand – so lay language as well as Danish and English.

Q2) What themes do the press find most interesting? 

ES: For the press you are looking for slightly different things than scientists would look for. When I go through all the abstracts (and I do go through all the abstracts – 3092 this year) I’m looking for stories with a human interest as they are more likely to be of interest to the public. Journalists like new results, emerging topics and new technology. Some examples from this year were a poster about whether reading could be used to reconstruct memories of intimate partner violence and prevent people starting new abusive relationships; the use of antibiotics to treat and prevent Parkinson’s dementia; a workshop on using light therapy to restore hearing and sight. 

We had a press conferences on themes such as the gut-brain connection and how this influences obesity and eating disorders. And this year we also arranged a series of ‘Neurotalks’ where journalists had informal discussions with  prominent scientists about research more generally, rather than on specific new findings. For example, Steve Hyman from the Broad Institute in Boston, USA,  talked about criminal law and neuroscience.

ML: The Danish press this year were very interested in Alzheimer’s Disease, partly because there is a well-known Danish professor who was presenting at the FENS Forum on potential diagnostics tests. Any subject that covers human disease, and potential cures, is of interest to the press. The other big theme this year was new discoveries about the importance of sleep for the brain.

Q3) What types of journalist engaged with the press office and how did press interest compare with previous years?

ES: Interest has been about the same as previous years with a lot of activity in the host country, including TV, radio and national papers. We had good representation from academic journals, as well as popular science magazines like the New Scientist. National newspapers don’t have budgets to allow journalists to travel to conferences anymore but we keep in touch with them throughout and they receive the press releases and write articles. We send press releases out widely but target them to the type of outlet that might be interested in any particular story.  FENS is starting to help arrange for local neuroscience societies to translate and promote press releases in the researchers’ home countries. That should facilitate wider coverage.

Q4) Do any subject areas cause anxiety with regard to potential coverage?

ES: Not really. As long as you prepare the press release well in collaboration with the speaker, there shouldn’t be  any problems. The press conference about sexomnia was a good example of a subject area that could have resulted in sensational headlines. Abnormal sexual behaviour during sleep is an under-recognised problem that is difficult and embarrassing for sufferers. I worked closely with the researcher to create an appropriately worded press release and interview; it went very well.  Animal research is much less likely to lead to adverse press reports since the 2014 Concordat on animal research has led to universities being more open about animal use. You do have to be careful not to promote work that has been submitted but not yet been published, so this often affects posters.

ML: Preparation of press releases is the key to preventing misunderstandings and misrepresentations. The press officers select the subjects they want to cover so have some control over managing controversial subjects. 

Q5) Did anything unusual happen this year?

ES: Well, there was the prominent Brain Prize winner who won the award for his research into memory and forgot to turn up to his press conference ...!!


Elaine Snell Metha Loumann