Multitasking in the Public Eye

I spent much of the last week in Belgium. A long-scheduled trip, I spent a couple of nights in Brussels and one in Leuven. With Cambridge-Brussels being easy and streamlined (usually at least) via Eurostar, this should have been a straightforward trip. In Brussels I was fulfilling part of my role as an ERC Scientific Council member by observing a (random) selection of interviews of potential grantees; in Leuven, a mere half hour away by train, I was attending a meeting of LERU science deans. (Not that my university has such a job title but, in the absence of any ‘real’ science dean, I have been asked to take on that role.)

However, things were a little more complicated than that due to a matter of bad timing. Next week is the annual British Science Festival, a celebration of the exciting science that has been going on over the past year and a chance for the public to catch up with the stories. As the incoming President I get to give a Presidential Address – and the opportunity to talk to the Press. My press conference – perhaps surprisingly the first formal one I’ve ever participated in – immediately preceded my departure for Brussels. The press conference itself was a very straightforward affair. Whereas I had been anticipating all kinds of challenging questions, these did not materialise at the time and I set off peacefully enough.

However, maybe the timing of lifting the embargo on the press release could have been timed worse, but I’m not quite sure how, (no one’s fault, just circumstance). The embargo lifted at midnight on Thursday by which time I had reached Leuven. But the Thursday afternoon and evening involved numerous hurried emails and phone calls to try to resolve media matters when I should have been doing other stuff. There really is no obvious way to do TV interviews in a hurry when in some random and not particularly large European town such as Leuven but the mobile phone is apparently considered quite good enough for doing radio interviews.

As I set off for the working dinner with the LERU deans, BBC Radio 4 Today came back me to advise me that they wanted to use FaceTime – an app I did have on my phone although not one I’d ever used – and not the hotel landline that already had been discussed. I stood in the hotel carpark discussing all the details and the topics to be covered and then set off at a fast pace for my dinner, as I was by then late. Of course I set off in the wrong direction and it proceeded to start to rain, hard and harder. By the time I found the restaurant my elegant soignée look (had I ever possessed such a thing) was lost and ‘drowned rat’ better described my apologetic and tardy appearance. However, mention the BBC and everything is forgiven. All everyone wanted to know was what I was going to be talking about: science education made the assorted company perfectly happy.

Aside from a further call to say the timing had been shifted a little – to give me longer on air – I was all set for a pleasant evening of good food and wine. The wine may have been a mistake, or it may have helped me to sleep, but I was up and ready betimes for Friday morning’s phone call (or should that be FaceTime call?). I won’t repeat what I said to Justin Webb as you can hear it here (where the BBC has helpfully placed just the relevant clip from the whole programme so you don’t have to search for my particular contribution), but suffice it to say the angle taken was not how the press release had been written. The press release was about post-16 education, with a throw-away line about toys.

The interview – and it transpired essentially all the other coverage in the print media of which there was plenty – was about gender stereotyping of toys, not my call for a reform of A levels. (Oh well, I could at least write what I wanted in my own piece on The Conversation website. I wrote this on Eurostar on the way out, and in it you’ll find something closer to what I will actually be focussing on in my Presidential Address). Plus, on Today as you can hear, a left field question about Tim Hunt that I hadn’t seen coming given the previous chat with the editor.

So where’s the multitasking, I hear you ask? That was what happened during the remainder of the day. I arrived late at the meeting – due to the Today interview – and then was much less able to concentrate on European issues about science funding, infrastructure and impact than I would have liked as I kept an eye on my iPad. Emails, tweets and voicemail flooded in. Yes, everyone in the room knew what was going on, but I still felt torn that I had two important and incompatible tasks to deal with. Several local BBC radio stations were trying to get hold of me plus a TV channel, plus a weekly publication. I found it hard to juggle, not least as I had to work out when the timing of a break might mean I could make a phone call while constantly trying to add (or subtract) an hour as I fixed things because of operating in a different time zone. I hope I still made a useful contribution to the LERU discussions!

In the end I did three of the various local radio requests (Cambridgeshire, Newcastle and LBC), finding a quiet(ish) corner outside with a bench on which to perch while waiting for my phone to be patched in. Anxiously waiting to see if another cloudburst would arrive, in fact the main problem was that I was in the rather beautiful medieval Groot Begijnhof which is entirely cobbled. Prams being wheeled past made an appalling racket and would have drowned the interviewer’s voice out if the timing had been wrong (though the incessant noises off of crows and pigeons probably wouldn’t have disturbed the listener too much). I felt bad about those stations I was unable to respond to because of failing to catch their messages in time, but people not returning calls is probably their daily fare. Just before I left Leuven I also squeezed in a conversation with someone from the TES, whilst standing in the square outside the station trying to think straight whilst anxiously keeping an eye on my luggage.

None of this is ideal. None of this is what any university’s media training course prepares you for. You are supposed to be fully in control of the situation, calmly sitting in a nice studio with your thoughts in order. Not switching between discussions of impact and the possible TEF to defending why Barbies represent a limited choice for girls in the toy-line. Nor is it conducive to concentration when being looked at with semi-amused smiles by the high level European scientists round the table as you try to keep an eye on your Twitter feed. Not my finest hour. Best piece of advice courtesy of Mark Miodownik  as I sat in the Eurostar terminal ready to go back: have a glass of wine!

Now I only have one interview to go, at least as far as I know, although I’m also due to record Private Passions tomorrow for BBC Radio 3 through a further unfortunate accident of timing (to be broadcast in early October I believe). Roll on Thursday, when I will be totally in control of my Presidential Address. What can go wrong? Well, my last blogpost on the Guardian website might give you some clues…..

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2 Responses to Multitasking in the Public Eye

  1. Penny Wiles says:

    I heard the Today interview and couldn’t agree with you more. i posted something about it on FB but it didn’t seem enough. On Saturday I went to a wedding where I knew hardly anyone and saw a very knowing baby girl being passed around. I showed the mother the article about toys on my phone and asked her to think of me as a fairy godmother in the Sleeping Beauty mode. I gave her £20 and asked her to promise to buy her daughter some construction toys when she’s about three.
    I’ve no idea who the mother and baby are, but it felt like it was worth a try.

  2. Sylvia says:

    For me, the take home message here is: anyone who wants to engage in science communication, has to be prepared to do it under suboptimal circumstances. (While abroad, when the press frames you in a different story, or when you’re ill, short on time, etc.) Saying ‘no’ to interviews is always easier and less scary, but if the message is important enough (which is it tends to be, if you’re a scientist and it’s scicom) do it anyway. Thanks for doing just that! 🙂
    Nice to be able to picture the part about Leuven, too (my current affiliation).

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