Sunday, December 10, 2023

Talking to the Media

A few weeks ago I woke to a media report that Optus customers had no landline, or mobile services. So I sent a message to the local ABC Canberra station to say I was available to talk. There was a text back within a minute to say could I speak on air in fifteen minutes. I have been on the Australian National University's list of experts to speak to the media for more than a decade, so this was a routine interview. But other ABC stations who monitor their own media, and rivals heard this, and I spent the next week talking to radio, and TV journalists (and ending up in print). 

The Australian Science Media Centre, which ANU subscribes to, sent out a comment from me:

"The Optus outage is most likely a regular software upgrade gone wrong. The problem is too widespread to be due to a cable break or equipment failure. " 

When it proved my diagnosis of the problem was correct featured me as their expert of the week. The result was mentions in 970 radio segments, 753 online articles, 169 on TV, and 22 in print. This is not as impressive as it looks, as many are local stations of the same network (each ABC local radio station is counted separately, when carrying the same item, for example).

The key to speaking to the media as an "expert" is not saying more than you know. In this case there was a national outage at Optus, effecting a large range of services. So I speculated it was due to a software upgrade in the routers (the specialized computers which send data around Optus' network). This turned out to be the case. I was asked if Optus could have had a backup, telecommunications but explained that because this was likely a problem with software, that would not have helped.

Another part is providing explanations which the public can understand. Technical jargon just confuses. It also helps to provide something the public can do. In this case I suggested if you have multiple phones at home have them on different networks (although this may cost more):

"This is a reminder to have backups for essential services. Even if you have another Internet connection, if you are using two-factor authentication to your bank, or employer, you will not be able to get the code on your phone to log in. If you buy a spare SIM card, check it is not using the same network as your usual telco, and your phone is not locked to them."

Also to keep the university happy it is important to ensure the interviewer mentions the name of the institution. The expert is not there to plug the university, I do like to tie the topic back to research, and education, where relevant:

"At the Australian National University, we are completing grading of the final assignment for computing students, before they graduate. The last thing they do is spend a year working in a team, building and testing, a real system for a real client. This is the ANU Techlauncher Program. An important part of this is to have more than one set of eyes on each line of code, and have students realize that failures of systems have real-world consequences for people."

If you are an academic, don't just pick up the phone and start talking to the media. First do the the media training offered by your media unit. Check on the rules for speaking publicly with your media unit. Get yourself added to the experts list

1 comment:

  1. I wrote a brief reflection on having spent a week talking to the media about the Optus phone & Internet outage, only to wake a few days later of another Optus outage. This one appears much more limited and I have only talked to ABC Radio, & only once.