Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Encyglobedia hits the news

In between all the mince pies and playing with my new toys, I had an interesting lesson in media relations last week as a little piece of research I did attracted quite a bit of press attention.

Early on the morning of the 28th, I was barely awake and leafing through The Times as I worked up the energy to go for a run... and was surprised to come across this little item on page 24:


That report was based on a little research project I did for my master's last year (summarised here on the Whipple Museum website).

It got better: a longish article (with my name!) in The Independent, a "big picture" feature on the BBC News website, articles in a bunch of other papers including the Irish Independent and the Belfast Telegraph, and even being called an "expert"! (OK, that was in the Cambridge News.)

Even more exciting was when I was contacted by two descendants of the globe's maker, a man who I'd been able to find almost nothing about.  They had read the story in a Spanish newspaper (possibly this one) and contacted me through this blog to share what they know of their (great) grandfather. One of them even has a very similar globe that he made!  I'm still looking into the leads they gave me, and hope to blog soon about what I find.

How did all this come about?  Well, to cut a long story short, the lovely PR people at Cambridge were looking for some research to feature in their Research Horizons magazine.  My investigation into this globe was nicely self-contained, had some very pretty pictures, and provided some well timed publicity for the Whipple's new globes gallery.  So my research got written up into a little article for the Cambridge University website, with a short accompanying film:




Even after all this (and even when I heard that the Press Association had shown interest in the story), I didn't expect it to spread so widely.  Frankly, I didn't see how "The World Inside a Spanish Globe" was news.  But I hadn't foreseen the "angle" that most newspapers went with: the idea that the globe represents an interactive style of education, which we tend to think of as a modern innovation.  This was something that I had touched on in my research, but only tentatively; I am very interested in education (I used to be a teacher) but know little about its history, particularly in Spain.  Most of the contemporary sources I'd read were educational philosophy - I didn't have much hard evidence about how that philosophy was put into practice.  And above all, I'm not certain that the globe was used in a school - it could equally likely have been an expensive toy for a wealthy family (though in that setting it would still have been educational, especially since many children were home-schooled).

So overall I would say that the reports did distort my research slightly, but not to an unreasonable extent.  And in hindsight it's easy to see why there was so much interest.  Here's four things I've learned; you might find them useful if you too want to be interviewed on local radio!

1.  A short, simple bit of research (like my six-week master's project) is easily summarised in a 400-word newspaper article, especially when it takes a case study approach, as my work did.
2.  And research that comes accompanied by pretty pictures is always going to be attractive.
3.  If there's a way the research can be spun so it has a topical message, it will sell well.
4.  Most importantly, if you want your research to spread widely, publicise it in a slow news week!  With nothing else to report but the Queen's speech and the content of the New Year's Honours, the way was clear for my "encyglobedia" (a name that provoked decidedly mixed reactions, by the way).

Happy New Year!

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