Communicating research findings to potential users outside the academic community has become an essential element in many economists’ working live. This extract from a guide to working with the media that I wrote for the Economic and Social Research Council back in 2000 focuses on choosing your target audiences.
Before designing your media strategy, you need to establish who the target audiences are for your research. Only then can you decide in which publications and on which programmes from the vast range of print, broadcast and online outlets you should be aiming for coverage. Obviously, central targets will be those with the greatest impact and/or the greatest number of readers and viewers. These tend to be the national broadsheets, the major weeklies and the main news and current affairs programmes on terrestrial TV. It is also worth thinking about more niche outlets – specialist publications, local press and media elsewhere in the world.
In thinking through your target media, you will find a clear distinction between those where there is a real shortage of space – the quality press and top TV and radio programmes – and those with space to fill – rolling news, start-up TV channels and most electronic media. With the former, you will be in competition to get coverage for your research stories; with the latter, it may be considerably easier and though the audiences you reach are smaller, these are good training grounds.
Once you’ve chosen your targets, you need to be familiar with what you’re targeting. Look through the national newspapers regularly (not just your favourites) and ask yourself what are the key ingredients of the news stories they carry related to your field. Watch the programmes that might cover your work and consider what angles they take and what commentators they use. Overall, engage with public debate so that on the one hand, you are up to date with the news, and on the other, you can begin to see how your research might fit into the national conversation.
Following the media in this way will lead you to become familiar with which journalists are likely to be interested in your work. You’re rarely going to have an impact on the editor of the Times, for example. But you will interest the economics correspondent, the social affairs correspondent, the public policy correspondent, the crime correspondent, the health correspondent – whoever it is for whom your research is relevant. And you should aim to build a database of these people and turn them into your media contacts.
Your database will be constantly evolving as you identify journalists with whom it is worthwhile being in touch. Some will be journalists covering a specific beat that overlaps with your research territory. Some will be journalists in related fields, such as business and finance for an economic researcher. And some will be the columnists and commentators who pontificate regularly on all sorts of topics and whose articles and broadcast slots may occasionally need decorating with some real research. But whoever they are, it is important that you read their publications from time to time. And a simple but often neglected point: do make sure you get their names and addresses right and keep their details up-to-date.
At the core of your database will be a handful of journalists whose interests align very closely with your own. If your work is in education, they may be the education editors of the national press. With these kinds of people, you should aim to build relationships based on direct personal contact. Through periodic meetings and regular reading of their articles, you can learn to understand their needs and interests, get an insight into their world, provide advice when they need it and from time to time offer exclusives. This will inevitably pay off in terms of consistent media mentions of your research output and of your perspectives on the news they cover.
In this context, it is worth noting that while journalists may sometimes be lazy, they are not usually stupid and should be treated with the same respect as your professional colleagues. They will often identify the flaw in an argument very quickly and rarely fail to grasp the implications of a piece of research if the work is properly explained. As one media don observes of his experiences with journalists: ‘among the quality dailies, they are mostly cleverer than my colleagues. They have brilliant degrees and often PhDs, but they also have good sense and quickness of mind.’