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Kate McCaffrey: How to gain a public audience for your research

For this much-anticipated blog post, the MEMSLib team caught up with the wonderful Kate McCaffrey. Having completed her MEMS MA with distinction in 2019/20, Kate now works as an Assistant Curator at Hever Castle. If her name sounds familiar, it's because Kate took the international press by storm earlier this year, releasing discoveries which formed part of her MEMS MA dissertation. Kate's research focused on a little-studied printed Book of Hours which belonged to Anne Boleyn, which is held at Hever. Using digital technologies and palaeographical analysis, Kate was able to tell the story of this book's history for the first time, uncovering a series of erased provenance inscriptions that showed how it had been passed down through a network of female owners after Anne's death. Kate also unveiled an important point of connection between Anne and Catherine of Aragon, the first two of King Henry VIII's wives who are often portrayed as rivals, with both women owning identical printed copies of this Book of Hours.

Kate's discoveries offer remarkable and valuable reading, but also deserve to be read in her own words, which can be done via her blog. In this interview, we focus instead on Kate's experience with media attention, and on adapting her research discoveries to both attract and engage the interest of public audiences.

When you've made a research discovery with a clear public appeal, do you approach the media or do the media approach you?

In order for the media to approach you, they have to first be aware of your research discovery. I was able to make the media aware of my research through two main avenues: one was through Hever Castle, the location of the Book of Hours that inspired my work, and the other was through the University of Kent’s press and public relations department. Hever Castle were keen to alert the media of my research with their book and so they prepared an initial press release which was drafted with the input of both myself and the university. We chose, after my initial suggestion, to ‘release’ my findings on the 19th May. This was a very deliberate choice of date, as it is the anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s execution. Every year, Anne’s execution anniversary reappears in the media and online and so, aside from the symbolic nature of releasing my findings on this date, it seemed like a perfect time to capitalise on that momentum. Once the initial press release was out to the media, I was approached by a range of different news outlets for interviews, such as The Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, BBC Radio Kent and ITV Meridian. After the news had broken to the public, more requests for me to give information and interviews came through from newspapers, radio stations and podcasts across the world as people caught on and became interested. So I would definitely recommend alerting the media first, by utilising your university’s press department and/or the help of an institution you are attached to, but once the media are aware they hopefully will start to approach you – news spreads fast!

Why do you think your discoveries struck such a strong chord with public audiences?

I think I have been lucky with my research in that it is attached to an historic figure, Anne Boleyn, who is still well-known and relevant today. Anne has always been a figure who inspires popular fascination and as it is so rare to find something completely new regarding her life, I think my work struck a chord. I also think that it has particularly interested people because of the real, human stories it highlights. It uncovered connections between a group of Kentish women who bravely strove to protect Anne’s legacy despite her widespread dishonouring after her execution. It illuminated themes of female solidarity and community, and I think these kinds of wider themes and human relationships are what the public are most interested in, beyond the more minute historic detail that we scholars enjoy. I think my findings struck a chord with people today because they unveiled stories of simple human emotions that we can still relate to, even 500 years later.

Once the media were interested in your story and discoveries, how did you go about modifying your research to make it accessible to different audiences?

This is honestly something I am still in the process of doing, but I would say that working with as wide a range of media outlets as possible has really helped me to reach the most people with my work. I have written about my work in journals such as the Times Literary Supplement and in scholarly blog posts for places like the Morgan Museum & Library, and I have also written about my work for BBC HistoryExtra and popular websites about Anne Boleyn. For the former, I stuck closer to the academic roots of my dissertation, including more detail, and for the latter I was able to relax my style and speak more about the human stories I mentioned just before. I quite quickly learnt that some of the more niche aspects of my research that I was the most interested in, weren’t quite so interesting to others!

Were there any particular difficulties you experienced when adapting your work for different platforms, especially in terms of maintaining control over the narrative you wanted to tell?

I certainly found difficulties with maintaining control over the narrative of my work, particularly during the initial ‘launch’ when some newspapers and online news sites were picking up on small things I had said and rewording them or taking them out of context. I can safely say that the only articles I feel completely comfortable with are the ones that I have written myself. This is actually one of the main reasons that I began my own website, a blog where I can write about my work in my own words and with complete control.

What type of media did you enjoy working with most?

One form of media that I enjoyed working with more than I thought I would has actually been podcasts! I have done a few now with various amazing historians and I have another coming up soon. I have found I end up just having a great chat with whoever is hosting, and what is also useful is that most are edited if you slip up or stumble over your words. I also have to say again that any articles that I have been able to write myself have been particularly enjoyable. I think my two favourites are my pieces for the TLS and then more recently for HistoryExtra.

Do you have any advice for fellow researchers wanting to approach the media with a fresh scholarly discovery or news story?

I would recommend going through your university’s resources and press department, as well as being in touch with any institution related to your work to see if they would be interested in helping your research receive media attention. I also think that packaging your discovery in an accessible way is really important, you have to think about what it is from your research that the media would really be interested in.

What was the best advice you received about working with the media? Is there any wisdom you received that other researchers should know who might be in a similar position?

I think the best advice I received was to ensure that my name was stamped all over my discovery, so that it could not be claimed or taken by anyone else. I think it is important to remember that it can be a rather ruthless world, and making sure your name is attached as firmly as possible to your work is crucial. I also think trying to control the narrative as much as possible is key. Use tools like your own blog or Twitter account, and make sure to be careful with your words and phrasing if explaining something to the press.

Having recently developed your own blog, how have you found this works with your media appearances? Would you recommend a blog to other researchers looking to engage public audiences?

I would absolutely recommend having your own blog in order to regain some control of the narrative of your findings. It is a place that you can send people to who want to know more about your work, whether they are from the media or the general public. It has become, for me, an online portfolio of all my media appearances, which I have linked on my homepage.

Are there any digital resources that you made use of that you think researchers and MEMSLib should know about?

Whilst I risk stating the obvious here, I cannot emphasise the importance of Twitter enough. Having an academic/professional account on Twitter is game-changing. I have been able to spread the word about my research in my own words and I have networked and met some amazing contacts from using it.

All images courtesy of Kate McCaffrey at her blog:

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