PR Profile: Sarah Brooker, Managing Director at Science in Public
Could you tell me about yourself and your role at Science in Public?
We’re a science communication business – PR for scientists and research organisations. I am the Managing Director and I look after long-term strategy and accounts, as well as coordinating and presenting our media communication workshops for researchers.
My husband and I merged our freelance businesses into a company after working together for two years to organise and then host the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne in 2007. We now have a wonderful team of people who are similarly enthused by science.
What is your career background, and how did you get started?
I studied genetics and biochemistry at James Cook University. I loved learning exactly how the world around me works at a molecular level.
During my honours year, I started to get the sense that I did not have the patience nor dedication to stick with research. All of my jobs were with people – coaching gymnastics, working at a video store and a newsagent. When I found an advert that invited me to run away with the science circus and gain a Grad Dip in science communication at the same time I was sold.
Since 1999 I have made a living talking and writing and presenting about science. I get to meet and work with incredibly intelligent people and I finish each day feeling optimistic about our future.
What are some of the highlights of your career so far?
Meeting the winners of the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science (we managed the media for 13 years).
I enjoyed guiding them through the process of writing a press release, making a video, media training them and then providing advice on what to say in their acceptance speech and occasionally even what to wear or where the closest hairdresser is. Often we would then pick them up from their hotel at 6am the morning after the awards ceremony and take them to Parliament House for interviews in the press gallery.
Doing publicity for National Science Week (we’ve looked after media and PR for eight years).
This is a grassroots event each year where individuals, schools, and organisations run events that encourage people to engage with science. The energy and enthusiasm of people around the country is so encouraging - in 2021, 1.9 million people participated in 1,657 registered events and activities!
The variety and the creativity is inspiring – from an inflatable digestive system that kids can crawl through to pub nights and bringing in tours like Neil deGrasse Tyson into the Week.
We issue around 16 media releases over two weeks through Medianet. Last year achieved 7,635 mentions of ‘Science Week’ in stories.
Hosting over 600 of the world’s science journalists and communicators in Melbourne for the 5th World Conference of Science Journalists in 2007.
We persuaded leading editors from Science, Nature and Scientific American to attend. And we raised funding to bring one hundred journalists from developing countries where reporting on science brings such stark benefits - from washing your hands through to HIV prevention and vaccination campaigns.
We convinced Australian embassies overseas to host receptions for journalists (with Australian wine of course) and lured them with stories of Australian science that they could cover while visiting.
Demonstrating how to extract DNA from bananas at a shopping centre in China for 10 days straight.
This was part of an exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA. I love travelling for work and I love finding the little bits of science that hook people in to stay a bit longer, ask questions and talk a bit more.
And it all started with running away with the Science Circus!
During my graduate diploma year with the Shell Questacon Science Circus we toured regional centres presenting science shows at small rural schools and town halls. I got to travel from Broome to Darwin, through the Rutherglen region and around Maitland. Tapping into kids' untamed curiosity about the world and also having the opportunity to re-ignite their parent’s perhaps stagnant ability to ask questions about the world.
What advice would you give someone trying to develop in their PR/Comms career?
Show me what you can do. That means having a visible profile online that illustrates your writing and achievements. Get experience writing or working in any area so that you are building up both your confidence in doing it and your muscle memory. For example, take on a role in a community group and do the PR for them.
Present yourself as you want to be perceived. Dress for the role, read up about the role and the organisation before you approach them, ask people for a 15-minute chat over coffee.
Collect skills – practice fixing websites, familiarise yourself with social media platforms, do online courses about Google and SEOs and the media.
What are you most proud of in the work that you do?
Building confidence in scientists that their work is interesting, and working with them to find the best way to explain their work in a way that it’s easy to understand. Seeing them on television or hearing them on radio years down the track makes my heart soar.
What's the most valuable lesson/advice you've learnt about work in the PR/Comms industry?
Take the time to work on relationships. That’s where I get my satisfaction from. And, before you know it, you’re twenty years in and the people you met starting out are now running organisations or are Chiefs of Staff!
Could you tell me a bit about a recent campaign or project you have worked on that has been particularly interesting/successful?
Dishbrain. Last October we helped Cortical Systems to announce that they’d grown human neurons in a petri dish and taught it to play Pong. It’s one of those stories that we’ll look back on in a decade and that’s when we first seriously thought about biological computing.
We ran a simple international campaign achieving stories in over 300 outlets including BBC TV news, The Guardian, The Economist, Ars Technica and the Daily Mail, plus wide coverage in Australia.
And Elon Musk tweeted about the story. Not sure if that’s good or bad.
What is something about your work or yourself that you think people would be surprised to learn?
Colleagues in more conventional PR roles assume we mostly target science reporters. In fact, in Australia our major focus is on reaching general news and talk journalists.
Most reporters are curious about the world around them. They may have been turned off physics and chemistry at school. We want our stories to reignite their interest. We want to see and hear science across the media.