Ather Mirza, Director of the University of Leicester News Centre, spearheaded the seven month media planning that culminated in global media attention on the discovery of King Richard III’s bones under a car park.
Advice from a wise editor long ago when I was a cub reporter on a daily paper held me in good stead as I was planning the communications strategy for what has been described as one of the biggest archaeological stories of recent times: The Discovery of King Richard III.
His words were, simply: “Tell it like it is.”
When a story is powerful, it needs no embellishments — the facts will speak for themselves. The presentations from my academic colleagues created a narrative that was so compelling that it would resonate with people across the world.
It may sound cheesy, but the gasps from journalists as we presented our evidence and showed the images that flashed around the world were audible. Their cheers at the end of our presentations were spontaneous. The celebratory hugs from the academic panel were genuine, not choreographed.
Telling it like it is resulted in high level global media coverage.
Success in attracting the media spotlight, however, can bring criticism as well as acclaim. The academic community is somewhat suspicious of the media and those that court its attention, and academics even more than journalists have almost a professional duty to be sceptical of new discoveries.
Add to this the particular sensitivities associated with examining and displaying the bones of a controversial king, and the potential pitfalls of mishandling such a story become all too clear. We were very aware from the start that balancing huge public interest against responsible treatment of the bones and the research was not going to be easy.
Overall, the consensus seems to be that we got the balance right. Nevertheless, some high profile academics have criticised us for being too open and not waiting for the research to be peer reviewed in an academic journal before going public. Inevitably, this backlash was reported alongside the story on the research. The University of Leicester was even accused of ‘milking it’ in one paper that wrote to us congratulating us on the ‘acres of media coverage.’
I have often reported on science discoveries –particularly in astronomy –before they have been peer reviewed and no one has batted an eyelid. The discovery of a gamma ray burst is allowed to become instant news – but not it seems that of a dead King.
Perhaps there are different sets of rules for scientific findings compared with the humanities – though I question whether the discovery of archaeological remains of national or international importance should need to be kept quiet until peer review.
Probably it is the unprecedented scale of media coverage of this story that has caused disquiet in some quarters. Yet for communications offices in most universities located north of Watford, getting any journalist to leave London for a press conference — let alone 150 of them from around the world – is an achievement in itself. No press office would let this opportunity go: we are mandated to use media opportunities not simply to communicate our research outcomes but to raise the profile of the University. Maybe we did this too well for some people’s liking.
No doubt the media buzz over Richard III will eventually subside, as the peer review papers come and go. But Leicester, the University where DNA fingerprinting was invented 30 years ago, will now also be known as the University that discovered a long-lost King.
Some may still say we should have waited longer to reveal all, but there are some stories that have to be told before speculation and misinformation take over. Ultimately, I am proud that we stuck to our guns and “told it like it is”.
Ather Mirza is a former award-winning journalist on the Leicester Mercury and is Director of the University of Leicester News Centre.
This Opinion Piece first appeared in The Guardian on 22/2/13.