Communicating research findings to potential users outside the academic community – whether in government, in business, in the voluntary sector or in the general public – has become an essential element in the working lives of most economists and other social scientists. And one of the most effective ways of reaching your target audiences, influencing policy and practice and changing public opinion is to make use of the media.
A publication I wrote for the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) back in 2000 provides some practical guidelines on how to develop a media strategy that will enable your research, your research programme or your research institution to have a greater impact on the national debate. The following is my overview.
What is a media strategy?
These days, more and more researchers and research institutions want to communicate with users of their output. Whether the goal is to influence policy and practice, to justify public funding for their work or to tap into additional resources and networks that will contribute to the research process, the importance and value of disseminating results to the widest possible audience is now almost universally recognised. That requires a communications strategy and at the heart of your communications strategy should be a carefully articulated media strategy that allows you to manage your relationship with the media.
A good media strategy will start by taking the target audiences for your research output and defining the most effective way to reach them through the media. It should address how the media can best be used to publicise research and influence debate. And once you’ve got media attention for your research, it should help you decide what to do with it. Your strategy should also specify the resources, both financial and human, that will be needed to promote your findings and manage the feedback you get.
For a research centre, programme or department, one key decision to make is whether to hire a press officer or media consultant. Dealing with the media can absorb an enormous amount of time and some researchers may not be suited for it. Having one person responsible for media relations can generate economies of scale, giving a focus to your media strategy, helping to build relationships with key journalists and developing your ‘brand’.
At the same time, it is possible that the cost of a press officer may be better employed in training your researchers in dealing with the media and obliging them to publicise their work on the principle that no one can promote work better than the people who did it. In this context, it is worth distinguishing between the press officer as gate-opener and the press officer as spokesperson. The former can be very useful, guiding journalists to the people they need to talk to, making sure communications run smoothly and managing the production and distribution of press releases. The latter may not be so valuable: journalists are likely to find that a spokesperson does not know enough, is not qualified to provide quotable comments and is no substitute for a real researcher.
Individual researchers will, of course, have little choice but to do the work themselves. But that is no reason not to think strategically about your media interactions. It is quite possible to plan a campaign to promote yourself and your research, and to think through what the consequences will be once your name becomes familiar to journalists as a reliable source for both new ideas and insights on current news stories.
Why should you develop a media strategy?
Can social science survive without the media? These days, the Research Councils constantly have to justify the public money that goes into research in terms of its outcomes and impact. So while ESRC is in the business of funding research of the highest quality across a broad range of topics, it is also in the business of knowledge transfer – enhancing the public understanding of social science and communicating that research to people who can make use of it.
To be effective in that mission, to change perceptions, you need to be innovative and go for your target audiences through the media. There are many different publics for research but the press and broadcast media form the most visible route. They are the conduits to the ultimate users of research – policy-makers, commercial organisations, non-profits and the general public. And successful engagement with the media requires a deliberate consideration of strategy and resources. What’s more:
- To influence policy, social scientists have no choice but to engage with the media. The public profile it provides establishes a reputation for advice, which policy-makers may follow up. Indeed, for politicians in particular, a piece of research may only become ‘real’ when it has appeared in a newspaper: then they need to absorb it since they may be asked about it or have it quoted against them.
- Media profile can also help with raising additional funding for research, attracting offers of consultancy work and/or promoting the brand name of your institution. In future, as higher education becomes more of a marketplace and universities compete more vigorously to attract funds and good students, it is conceivable that your remuneration will be influenced by your contribution to your university’s public image.
- Media attention can also raise the public profile of your discipline. Natural scientists have become highly adept at communication in recent years and this has raised public interest in scientific issues. Social scientists, traditionally seen by journalists as poor communicators, can now try to reverse that opinion, emulate the success of the natural scientists and increase public discussion of social science research.
- Media profile may make it easier to gather data and case studies for further research. Nowadays, users play a valuable role not simply as recipients of the end results but as contributors of ideas, contacts, different perspectives, even data resources throughout the research process.
- Meeting the challenge of explaining in a limited space and to a general audience why research is important helps to focus your thinking and sharpen your research agenda. Working with the media can also be a lot of fun and offer a new challenge and a new impetus to the development of your career. Some researchers may even aspire to become media dons. As one journalist comments: ‘There are very few in the social sciences and plenty of scope for newcomers.’