Communications Officer, Euan Wemyss, tells us about his role fielding media enquiries, writing press releases and how he likes to unwind with a podcast and wrestle with his Great Dane, Fudge.

Tell us about your role at the University

There are a number of roles that Communications Officers (or press officers in old money) carry out. One of the main jobs is to create positive stories about the University that are of interest to as many people as possible. We are also responsible for internal communications – keeping staff informed of what is going on across the campuses, and of course managing the endless stream of media enquiries that come in on a daily basis – honestly you have no idea!

Most of the ‘good news’ that we create comes in the form of press releases. The highest impact news stories that our team create are based on interesting and important research – anything from discovering hidden civilisations in archaeology to breakthroughs in MRI technology and everything in between. We work directly with our academics to make their incredibly complex research accessible to layman readers and viewers. We do this by interviewing them and then writing up a press release which we will then bat back and forth with the academic or academics until both parties are happy.

Most of the Communications Officers are ex-journalists, so we have a good understanding of what the media will and won’t find interesting. Whilst we pride ourselves on being able to find a news ‘hook’ for almost any area of research, there are some areas that are more difficult to sell than others. Many academics are quite self-aware, but for some I think it must be difficult to hear that the area of study they dedicate their lives to is not of interest to the masses. However, even if we don’t feel a press release is the right way to promote a particular area of study, we can usually find some avenue for them to disseminate their work to a general audience. We also have a role to play in managing expectations. Whilst the research may be hugely significant, it doesn’t mean it will end up leading the BBC News at Ten. We are competing for media attention with every other university and research institute in the country and the world so it is an incredibly competitive marketplace. As well as research stories we also do stories on student and staff achievements, events and help draft statements and corporate communications.

I’ve been at the university for four years now. I started off as Comms Officer for CoPS and now I work with CLSM. I have built up a good relationship with the academics but there are always new people starting so it’s a constant battle making sure everyone knows that the press office is here, and what we do. We basically want everyone to tell us all their news, all the time – so we don’t miss anything that could be a big story. We’re kind of obsessed like that. It’s horrible when a great research paper is published and we didn’t know anything about it. It’s also not ideal when an academic contacts us on Thursday when the paper is being published on the Friday, “can you do us a press release on this?” Arghhhhh! It’s difficult because I know the academics often have the release date for their papers sprung upon them so we just have to react as best we can. But usually the more notice we have that a paper is coming out, the better job we will do with the release and the more coverage it is likely to achieve.

We can only get press releases written when we’re not dealing with press enquiries however, and these enquiries come thick and fast. We are often asked if we have experts in this, that and the other – “do you have anyone who works in collagen?”; “do you have any seagull experts?”; “do you have anyone who can explain why a Scottish accent is difficult for actors to learn?”. Every request is an opportunity to promote the University, so every one requires us to try and find someone who fits the bill and, most importantly, is willing to speak to a journalist or go on the radio the same day. It’s not always an easy task.

We also get a lot of operational enquiries from the local media which have the potential to be negative stories, so again we need to find the relevant person to provide us with the information to allow us to draft a response. Media enquiries can literally take up our entire day, which is frustrating because you have very little to show for your efforts at the end of it. In fact, sometimes the best result is that the story doesn’t run at all.

How do you usually start your day?

After being dragged around the village by Fudge, my enthusiastic Great Dane, I head to the office. I usually exchange disbelief over the latest political developments in the news with my colleagues. I  check our daily media coverage to see which of the stories we issued the day previously were picked up and where. Not all media approaches come through the press office, so it is good to see which of our academics are doing media that we might not know about. We also see any stories that may be critical, or potentially critical of the university (it does happen, would you believe?!) so that keeps us informed of trouble that may be coming down the road that we can prepare for.

We have a quick team huddle about 9.15 so we all know what is going out or being worked on and to agree any media lines that we may need for the forthcoming day or days.

After that it’s on to any stories that I may have been working on. Some releases can be bashed out in half an hour but others which are more complicated can take a while to break down and write in a manner that will be understood. Then the media enquiries phone rings. You take a breath, pick it up and wait to see where it takes you!
What brought you to the University of Aberdeen?

Before joining the University in 2012 I was at STV News in Aberdeen for six years, during which time I was an online and then broadcast reporter. It was a job that I loved but I got sick of the paparazzi following my every move and constantly attending glitzy premiers. No, not really. It was a great and challenging job but it is a career with a relatively narrow trajectory so I decided to try and add another string to my bow. PR is often referred to as the ‘dark side’ by journalists but as PR jobs go, the University is probably the best in the city as the diversity of stories is great and because we are often dealing with exciting research discoveries. We don’t have to do a very ‘hard sell’ to journalists, as the stories speak for themselves.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

It is a genuine honour to get time to sit and speak with our brilliant academics who are doing mind-blowing work and then attempt to tell the story of their work to the masses. Some of them have no idea how interesting it is because it’s just what they do every day.

Ultimately our success is measured in the amount of coverage we get. It is quite thrilling to see a press release you worked on from scratch being picked up (and in some cases printed verbatim) across the quality UK and international media. When a story goes particularly big it takes over our entire day and we can be fielding calls and enquiries from all over the world.

I was trained as a video journalist at STV so I also know my way around a video camera and how to edit video so I sometimes get involved in video projects which I also really enjoy. Though they are quite time consuming so I can’t do as much as I’d like.
What are your work priorities at the moment?

We try to align the stories we are producing with the priorities of the Schools we serve. I work primarily with the School of Medicine and Medical Sciences so if they are looking to bolster their cancer research, for example, we will do our best to source stories related to cancer research or fundraising.

We are always working on ways to ensure academics, and other areas of the University know that we’re here and to encourage them to get in touch so we have started doing drop in sessions at Foresterhill where staff can sit down, even just for a minute or two to give us the gist of their story and then we can follow it up later. This seems to have been a success and hopefully will continue to ensure a good supply of stories.
How do you like to relax outside work?
I am a podcast junkie and have my headphones in pretty much anytime I am doing any menial task. I have a crazy dog, Fudge (a Great Dane) who I walk day and night and whilst she can cause stress when she decides to eat the furnishings, she also helps me relax by taking up two thirds of the sofa and staring at me with her big, stupid face. She’s good for a wrestle too if the mood takes her! I also play a bit of guitar and am the singer/guitarist in a bar/function/wedding band called Starsky (available for booking now at very reasonable prices – see www.starskyband.com for full details!)