Case study

Social Licence: Developing newsworthy stories about scientific breakthroughs


Many great social licence stories come from the compelling research projects being led by international students in New Zealand. These stories align with our story framework by highlighting how international education helps to shape the global citizens needed to solve the world’s problems. 

For example, Dr Htin Lin Aung, a researcher at the University of Otago, is conducting ground-breaking research on tuberculosis (TB), the world’s second-leading infectious killer after COVID-19.

In 2021, he was awarded one of eleven prestigious Rutherford Discovery Fellowships from the Royal Society Te Aparangi to continue his multidisciplinary research to eradicate TB.

Following this incredible achievement, Education New Zealand developed a newsworthy story that also demonstrated the value of international education within New Zealand’s health sector.

Dr Htin Lin Aung, University of Otago researcher and Rutherford Discovery Fellowship recipient. Image credit: Sharron Bennett.

What does this mean for New Zealanders?

When assessing stories, they should have a ‘newsworthy litmus test’ applied. This considers if the subject matter is timely, topical, a world or New Zealand-first event, has local or regional relevance, a new solution or breakthrough, or has a social impact that people care about.

Despite the complexity of Htin’s research, his work has demonstrable benefits for New Zealanders. TB disproportionately affects Maori and Pasifika communities, and Htin is using a “community and patient centred” approach to his research to solve public health issues alongside the communities most affected by it. This work proves to address a topical issue and offering a new solution with the potential to have an impact that will save people’s lives.

Seeking external endorsements to strengthen a story

Demonstrating the tangible benefits to New Zealand is easier when more people from can get behind it. It pays to identify people with different expertise and points-of-views to demonstrate why a story is important and newsworthy.

A key part of Htin’s fellowship is that he will involve Maori and Pasifika researchers and postgraduate students, which he believes is an important way he can help diversify the health research field in New Zealand. He has mentored nine students including six Maori and Pasifika students over the past two years, who were also willing to share how meaningful his research is for their communities.

A media release was developed announcing Htin’s Rutherford Discovery Fellowship and sharing how his funding grant will help reduce tuberculosis health inequalities and forge STEM pathways for Maori and Pasifika.

It also included quotes from Maori student Callum August who works alongside Htin, and the University of Otago Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Richard Blaike to share why this funding is important for improving health outcomes for vulnerable Kiwis.

The release was distributed to editors of medical publications, health reporters for local Dunedin newspapers like the Otago Daily Times and regional publications like Stuff and NZ Herald, as well as nationwide reporters covering Pasifika and Maori affairs.

PhD student Callum August [left] in the lab with his mentor Dr Aung

Finding the right channels and audiences

When developing a story, be clear about who your audience is and why they would be interested in your story. A defined audience will determine how to approach a story angle and the publications and channels to target.

An important audience for the social licence narrative are those working in industries that stand to benefit from having international students bring their expertise to their field.

We pitched and successfully landed Htin’s story in NZ Doctor, a medical trade publication widely read by the medical industry. This means that medical professionals have read about the contribution of international students to their field, helping to build support from them in this sector. In light of New Zealand’s health sector skills shortage, it also demonstrated how international students can help fill gaps and provide exceptional medical care.

Dr Aung [left] with his postgraduate students researching tuberculosis to reduce health inequalities for Māori and Pasifika


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