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
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
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 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
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.
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