Paths to Effective Communication of Research Successes

Purpose:

This document describes best practices which will be helpful to research communications offices in institutions, the media, general reporters and science writers. It also highlights a number of challenges which need to be addressed, from relationships between stakeholders, to understanding the different customs affecting the various players.

Importance of effective communication:

Research underpins modern society and is key to addressing pressing global issues that affect us all. The quality of Canadian research is high and as a result of the Governor General of Canada’s bold initiative to markedly enhance our chances of competing successfully for major international awards and prizes, there have been significant achievements in the past several years including: Nobel Prizes in Literature and Physics; Wolf Prizes in Medicine and in Mathematics; and noteworthy increases in the number of Guggenheim Fellowships (from usually two per year, to seven in 2015) and Sloan Research Fellowships.

However, the importance of research and the role it plays in our society is not well understood or appreciated by the general public. Effective communications of successes by institutions (universities. hospital research institutes, companies, and government laboratories) are necessary to address this deficiency and can contribute to:

  1. Strengthening Canada’s brand and reputation;

  2. Promoting Canada as a recognized source of expertise to address pressing global issues;

  3. Demonstrating return on investment (ROI) on research funding;

  4. Creating a culture of research excellence in Canadian educational and research institutions;

  5. Building the visibility and reputation of individual institutions;

  6. Attracting research talent from around the world, as well as recruiting young Canadians to research and science;

  7. Improving public science literacy by engaging the public in research and science;

  8. Supporting evidence-based policy and decision making; and

  9. Increasing the profile and success of the initiative itself.

Changing media landscape:

Massive changes in the traditional media landscape brought on by digital technology (e.g. hyper-segmentation of content, loss of traditional revenue streams) have led to fewer opportunities, resources and incentives for reporting on complex issues like research. Cutbacks and layoffs have resulted in fewer dedicated science journalists in traditional media outlets with that responsibility falling on general assignment reporters.

Canadians get their news increasingly from digital sources, rather than traditional media. This is particularly true for younger Canadians. In addition to media outlets pursuing digital innovation like the successful La Presse+ app, a number of digital-born media, such as Yahoo! News, the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed Canada have been launched. Many Canadians consume daily news largely or exclusively from social media sources, mostly through Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, making a very strong, urgent case, for the increased use of social media in getting the message out.

Media expectations:

One journalist whose mainstay is to write articles on research and innovation summed up well what he and a number of colleagues said independently of each other—“I think if I were to pick the single most important piece of advice on communications, it would have to be that telling an actual story on success [awards/prizes] involves real people and matters to local readers, and is far more useful than a stream of minor announcements about administrative changes, increments of funding, and studies that affect no one in the broader community. What I look for is two-fold: answers to specific questions where your faculty have expertise, but also stories in the old-fashioned sense”.

With timelines frequently in the 5 to 15 minute range, it is imperative that research communications staff are nimble in linking the reporter with the individual who is knowledgeable about the issue. If the timeline or contact proves impossible, say so. And should the research communications officer [RCO] know an expert elsewhere, give the reporter/interviewer the contact details. This kind of networking will often lead to another research-based article thereby increasing coverage for research and innovation in Canada as a whole. In sum: RCOs should work for the benefit of the research enterprise across Canada, and not only for individual institutions.

Improving impact and outcomes:

Discussions with research communications leaders and staff at institutions, as well as with traditional and social media reporter, led to a number of recommendations to improve impacts and outcomes.

  1. It is vitally important that the right individual talk to the reporter about the award/prize, and especially to learn about the research which led to the recognition. Seize opportunities in an expeditious manner, to enable the reporter to file the story on time.
  2. Research communications staff should undertake the following:
    • work their own beat by visiting faculties, institutes, and centers, and learning from researchers about their newest significant results, publications, etc. Ask researchers to explain clearly, how and why their work has impacted a field and society as a whole;
    • at least annually, give presentations to each faculty on the importance of communicating research and innovation successes, international awards and prizes, and explaining the added value to the researcher, to the faculty, and to the university. This practice also helps build the case for successful nominations of leading researchers and rising stars for national and international awards and prizes;
    • give presentations to new graduate students, to sensitize them early in their career, to the benefits of communicating results from their research. Researchers, in communicating with the media, should involve one or more of their students/postdoctoral fellows involved in the research being featured.
    • arrange for researchers to be coached in preparation for interviews with media: television, radio, newspapers, or other; and
    • meet with their counterparts in other countries, to educate and inform them about exciting research results at their institution, to learn best practices elsewhere and to seize opportunities for collaboration. A particularly impressive example was that of a senior staff member at Western University who met with his U.K. counterparts at, amongst others, The Daily Telegraph,The Daily Mail, British Broadcasting Corporation, and the media relations lead at University College London. In doing so, the senior staff member acquired new perspectives concerning media-institution relationships, etc.
  3. Press releases on international awards, prizes and grants should begin by describing the breakthrough/landmark research. Information on the award/prize/ grant itself should follow thereafter. Reporters are generally not interested in the dollar value of new awards, prizes, and grants but prefer to showcase major results and outcomes from the research. Press releases and backgrounders should be provided to key reporters, on a two to four day embargoed basis, so they can assess the release, and, when justified, prepare an article (or make a report on social media, television, radio, etc.) to appear on the same day as the announcement of the international award or prize.

Summary:

The foregoing describes the opportunities and challenges to develop sustainable partnerships between research communicators and the media. It was heartening to learn from the stakeholders consulted of their willingness to move forward in a cooperative and constructive manner. Indeed, a new ground-breaking development, led by the Research Communications Manager at Western University, is the establishment of Research Communicators Canada, a new national association. This organization, as he said, will address how “we can do a better job of raising the bar and increasing the collective attention span for research” in Canada.

Prepared by Howard Alper for
Enhancing Global Recognition for Canadian Excellence
A National Initiative Led by the Governor General of Canada
2016



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