Organising public meetings is one way to communicate economic research to audiences beyond academia. 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 how to approach it.
Some research publications may be so potentially newsworthy or relate so directly to current issues of public debate that it is worth holding an event to bring together researchers, journalists and other interested parties. Or there may be a big running story in the news on which your work can shed valuable light: a public event featuring contributions from researchers and other interested parties in government or the private sector may be the ideal way to get your message across.
Such events might include simple gatherings with a handful of key journalists over breakfast, lunch or dinner, more formal press conferences, public discussion meetings for upwards of 100 people drawn from a variety of different communities, smaller more select gatherings of ‘opinion-formers’ or briefings for MPs and peers in Westminster. For all such events, it is worth considering what kind of special publications could be produced: factsheets and press releases before the event; and perhaps reports describing the research and the discussion by ‘users’ afterwards.
One key to successful events, particularly those laid on specifically for the media, is that it must add value. For example, if you are gathering journalists for a press briefing, it is worth asking what will they get from turning up that they would not have got simply from reading a press release or talking to you by telephone. A free meal or a glass or two of fine wine is one answer but no matter how good the ancillary benefits, they are never enough. Instead, ask yourself whether the journalist who shows up will get something that the absent competition won’t: a different twist on the story, in effect a mini exclusive, or maybe the opportunity to hear the reactions of people with an interest in the research findings.
The other key to successful events is how the speaker performs. This means being prepared to invest a great deal of time in designing your message to fit your audience. Public events are not academic seminars so try not to come across as an out-of-touch boffin. Your listeners will want to hear short, entertaining and comprehensible presentations, so:
- Stick very rigidly to your allocated time. Usually ten minutes is more than enough. This means being well organised. And don’t say things like ‘in the limited time available’ or ‘how much time do I have?’
- Be professional. No unreadable slides, whether hand-written, in small type or packed with baffling statistics. No fumbling with papers or making remarks about problems with ‘the technology’. In fact, these days, almost all presentations should use Powerpoint.
- Avoid jargon yet try to convey the intellectual excitement of your work.
- Don’t waste too much time laying out your assumptions and your data. And don’t explain how your work fits into ‘the literature’. Your listeners want to know how it fits into their daily concerns.
- State your conclusions clearly. It’s a cliché but it makes sense: ‘tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em it and then tell ‘em what you’ve told ‘em’.
You may also want to invite journalists to academic conferences and workshops, perhaps as an inexpensive alternative way of attracting their attention. But be careful: you don’t want to alienate journalists by getting them along to very academic sessions where they will feel out of their depth or, worse, bored. Nor do you want them to listen to a research project presented as a proposal or a work-in-progress rather than with concrete results. And you also need to beware instituting ‘Chatham House rules’ if you’re inviting the media: there’s no point the media coming if they can’t report what they hear. The overall message is be clear in your invitations to journalists about what it is you’re getting them along to. It is generally wise to be selective in whom you invite.