CAMPAIGNS: Science PR - New planet discovery puts UK first

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the UK’s strategic science investment agency, which funds, co-ordinates and plans all research in this area.

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the

UK’s strategic science investment agency, which funds, co-ordinates and

plans all research in this area.



At the end of last year, a new planet outside our solar system was

discovered by a team of scientists at St Andrew’s University in Scotland

and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxford. Many planets have been

detected outside our solar system before because of the way light from

parent stars is interrupted, but this was the first time that a planet

had actually been ’seen’.



This was thanks to new software which allowed scientists to separate the

light from stars and light from the planet alone. The discovery was a

major coup for British science and the research council felt it would be

of interest to a wider audience than the international astronomy

community.





Objectives



The campaign to publicise the new planet fits in with the PR team’s

overall business objective to communicate to as wide an audience as

possible the science that the UK gets involved in. It also aims to

communicate the results, and to show the importance of the research

council’s work to science and UK plc.





Strategy and Plan



The PR team liaised closely with the individual scientists responsible

for the discovery throughout the campaign. However, the scientists were

due to have their paper published in Nature magazine which operates an

embargo and the PR team had to comply with this when planning media

relations.



An added complication was that the story had already leaked to the

Sunday Times and the Independent, but it was felt that there would still

be a lot of public interest.



To give the story an extra boost, an illustrator who specialises in

science and space, David Hardy, was commissioned to come up with an

image of the what the planet probably looked like. Hardy worked closely

with the scientists to make sure he had the right information for his

mock-up of the planet.



A press release was put together which tapped into ’end of the century

fever’ by taking the angle: ’a new planet for the new millennium’, and

avoided reference to photons, technology and the computer science behind

the discovery.



The release was sent to the national press on 14 December 1999 embargoed

until the following day, when the report in Nature was published. The

press office at St Andrew’s University helped with distribution to the

Scottish media. As well as targeting science writers on the nationals,

the two teams sent the picture and release to picture desks and news

editors to give them as broad an audience as possible.





Measurement and Evaluation



Full measurement and evaluation of the coverage has not yet been

completed, but Peter Barratt, head of publicity at the Particle Physics

and Astronomy Research Council said that the results were

’staggering’.



The story appeared in all the main UK and Scottish broadsheets and

tabloids, the Economist, and was broadcast on Radio 4, BBC News 24, Sky

News, and ITN.



Coverage also appeared unexpectedly in international publications such

as the Sydney Morning Herald and USA Today.





Results



The team had extraordinary success in turning what could have been a

quietly-released technical science story into a mainstream news and

picture ’must-have’ for the national media.



Client: Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council

Campaign: Discovery of a new planet

PR Team: In-house

Timescale: December 1999

Budget: Undisclosed



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