It is no secret that in times of digitalisation and information overload, communicating research plays an increasingly important role – and research institutes are employing communication units large and small in order to make their own voice heard in the cacophony of voices, opinions, and media outlets.
“The ability to communicate is the key to being relevant”, Anna-Pia Hudtloff, Head of Communication at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) said at our recent two-day workshop on research communication. Thus, we were caught by surprise to learn that this was the first opportunity for our workshop participants – communicators at EADI member institutes – to dedicate two days on exactly this: exchanging experience on best practices in development research communication. No wonder that the room was buzzing with excitement, ideas and chatter – what else to expect when 23 communication experts come together in one room?
Why researchers and communicators need each other
A large part of the exchange concentrated on the relationship between communicators and researchers. In times where funders increasingly expect a certain level of visibility of their research projects’ output, researchers who interactively engage in the public conversation – on social media and elsewhere – have an advantage. Unfortunately (or luckily, depending on the point of view), not everyone is geared up to promote her or his research that way, which is where communications people come in: “We are the hype-people for the academics, we create noise around an issue, and it is much easier to boast about someone else’s work than about one’s own”, as Rowena Harding, Research Communications Officer at the Global Development Institute (GDI) put it.
In order to do so, however, a relationship of trust between researcher and communicator is essential. When communicators are on board from early on, they can help create stories around the research and identify aspects of special interest in connection with broader conversations. Moreover, they can edit summaries and briefing papers, making them more attractive for the target audiences. Training researchers in communications has also proven to be a helpful tool – not only for media communication, which many are uncomfortable with, but also how to present research outcomes in a concise and lively way in discussions and on panels. In turn, researchers must be able to trust that communicators don’t oversimplify their research, but help explain complex matters in an easily understandable way without dropping the necessary nuances. To walk along this fine line, communicators need to be in a constant dialogue with researchers, and develop an understanding of what they want to put across.
Working with the press: Much more than sending out press releases
Nobody would deny that the press is an important target group for boosting public interest in certain pieces of research. However, research communicators with experience in journalism know that press releases, although meant to reach this very target group, usually end up in the bin. This is why the Nordic Africa Institute stopped sending press releases altogether around five years ago. Victoria Engstrand-Neascu, the institute’s Head of Communications, explains why: “Journalists don’t want to be told what to write, but they want to learn about the issues they write about”. Since then, the institute’s message to the press is this: “You want to write about certain developments in Africa, we have the expert knowledge. Contact us, so that we can connect you with the right experts for your case.” This works particularly well when something happens in or with regard to Africa. In such cases, the institute’s communications team contacts selected journalists, offering them science-based expertise.
For researchers who explicitly want to extend their reach by engaging with and writing for the press, pitching articles to The Conversation is seen as a good training opportunity for presenting research in an interesting and more popular way (and, of course, the EADI blog!). With the slogan “Academic rigour, journalistic flair”, The Conversation describes itself as “an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public”.
Policymakers’ attention – a rare resource
Anna-Pia Hudtloff is sure that we only have a few seconds to get policymakers’ attention: they are usually so overwhelmed with emails and papers that they can only superficially flip through them every day. To have the slightest chance of being read, a briefing paper needs to be both eye-catching and short, ideally having clear statements in the headline rather than questions. “Researchers love questions, but politicians love statements.”
What is true for policymakers in general, applies even more to the “Brussels EU bubble”, as Virginia Mucchi, Head of Communications at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) calls the centre of EU policymaking. She compares it to an extremely loud and crowded arena where everyone has the same aim: convincing the EU to do something. In order to make your voice heard, you need to gain their trust as an “honest broker”, as opposed to a lobbying organisation. At the same time, policymakers don’t have the time to translate research into politics and prefer concrete policy proposals. This is why ECDPM has taken both approaches: being the “honest broker” in some projects and giving concrete recommendations in others.
Challenges, opportunities, and open questions
The increasing role of video, multimedia, and other digital types of communications can be both a challenge and an opportunity, which – in any case – science communication can’t afford to ignore. Training researchers to take good photos or even short videos on field trips is therefore quite high on many communicators’ wishlist, multimedia having become an unavoidable means to reach broader audiences through stories with a human touch. At the same time, the media landscape in general is becoming increasingly simplistic. The desire to ‘go viral’ rather than convey substantive topics is a great challenge for science communication. Who would honestly enjoy competing with cat videos, for example?
Another hot topic at the workshop was how to deal with the fake news epidemic. Do we actively try to rebut the obvious rubbish from bubbles that depict a different reality, or are there better ways to counter the spread of false information? If so, what are they? Is there a strategy out there that tackles this problem? And how do we deal with the so-called “deep fake”? – fake news that is so well made-up that it is difficult to distinguish from real evidence-based news. Many open questions on which we would love to publish further insights or opinions on this blog!
A new “Communications” working group
The most tangible outcome of the workshop was the decision to establish a permanent EADI Working group on research communication, responding to everyone’s wish to set up regular meetings and discussions to continue the exchange after the kick-off. We will be keeping you informed!
This blog was first posted on EADi’s website .