On the national news beat, it’s easy to get stuck in the mode of writing and pitching “study finds this” or “result of research suggests this” articles. Y’know, stuff that has a clear thin-slice, like “School junk food ban works, study finds” or “Research: One-in-four women ambivalent about kids.” That’s why this cool research over in the College of Engineering was quite a fun change of pace from our point of view.
Known as the Trauma Mechanics Research Initiative, the integrated, multi-level effort is aiming to protect U.S. troops from Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, by replicating their lethal blast wave in a laboratory environment. To do so, UNL engineers have built a giant “shock tube” that, when fired, emulates an IED exploding in the fields of Afghanistan or Iraq. Then, using high-tech simulation software, they study how such a blast specifically affects different parts of the human body — the head and brain (above), the bones, soft tissue and so on. It’s innovative work, and UNL is on the cutting edge of it. The result, at the end of the day, should be new and better helmets and body armor to keep our soldiers safe.
Due to the nature of the research, we’ve been treating it as a long-term pitch. It’s not producing definitive “wow” moments every day, week, or month — the progress on the project is far more nuanced than that. And that, as opposed to research that is regularly producing published work, can be a more difficult sell. You’re basically pitching the promise of the research’s results, not the results themselves, which makes it difficult for some journalists to frame quickly and succinctly.
So our chosen approach on pitching TMRI is to look at it from 30,000 feet, and move deliberately through different types of media over a period of time. For this particular project, we chose to look at local media first, then slowly work outward into any number of niche publications — and then, using that momentum, a national media outlet.
We’ve carried out two of the three steps; in early August we hosted Don Walton and Eric Gregory of the Lincoln Journal Star, who produced an excellent package on the research that landed on the front page of the newspaper’s Sunday print edition. Don’s the dean of Nebraska reporters and has a reputation that’s unmatched, so we knew he’d do a great job. Eric is a veteran news photographer who, with limited space, capably illustrated the research so audiences could visualize what was happening in the UNL lab.
With that “get” in hand, we then attracted interest from National Defense Magazine, a Virginia-based publication that is widely read on Capitol Hill and in the defense industry around the globe. We arranged telephone interviews and enlisted our photographers to get a number of photos for use in the magazine’s pages, and a story on the research is forthcoming in the publication’s October issue. We’re eager to see what treatment it receives there, and what the reaction might be from NDM’s readers. Meanwhile, we’re also targeting a number of weblogs and other national niche pubs, both online and in print, to continue to drive interest in the research. A hit here, a hit there, and we’ll undoubtedly be in a stronger position to pitch it at some point to places like the Post, the Times or any of the major news networks.
The steady, long-term approach also gives this particular research some time to make new progress. If there are, for example, research papers or big breakthroughs over the next several months or so, we’ll be sure to re-frame our pitches and rearrange our basic timetable to garner national coverage (which would be fine by us, by the way).
If not, we’ll stick to Plan A and keep moving it forward in solid increments. With a long-term pitch like this, it’s important to keep the embers hot. Ideally, you’d like to throw some accelerant on them and get things really roaring, but in the end we know the best route is stoking the embers every now and then with a timely placement here and there.
As more ground is broken by our Trauma Mechanics engineers, you should expect some smoke — but certainly, plenty of fire.