Researchers and Academic: Adopt a PR Mindset

By Kevin Anselmo

Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, noted the following in a BBC story: “Truth is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by peers. For every fact there is a counterfact. All those counterfacts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.” Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016 was post truth: an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

This is a rather gloomy way to start a piece. This quote and fact can be particularly troubling if you do serious research. It is the antithesis to what conducting research is all about: gaining new knowledge, establishing or confirming facts, reaffirming the results of previous work and solving problems.

There is an ongoing struggle between Team Fact (embedded in good research) and Team Fiction (characterized by post truth). Right now it appears that Team Fiction is winning. There are various ramifications to this and the solution to the problem is multi-faceted. That said, Team Fact could reverse the trend by stepping up its game on the communications front.

I have worked with many fascinating researchers over the past decade and come across numerous compelling studies that shed light on important matters. But all too often, no effort is put into communicating research. Common refrains I have heard are that it comes across as self-promotional, it requires “dumbing down” rigorous research and that there are no extrinsic rewards. Therefore, really great work often times is shared with just a handful of academics. When some promotional efforts do go into disseminating research, it is often not very compelling.

It is unreasonable to ask trained researchers who have no marketing education and experience to become PR gurus. Similarly, it would be unfair to ask PR professionals to suddenly become research experts in particular areas. That said, it is not enough for researchers to either do nothing to promote their work or send along a PDF attachment of a 200-page academic journal article to their communications colleague and then leave it in their able hands.

Communicators need to help researchers adopt some of the components of a PR 2.0 mindset that Deirdre Breakenridge highlights on her PR Expanded Blog. All of the eight practices Deirdre articulates have their place, but for a researcher, I recommend honing in on Practice #4 – The Communications Organizer. Within this practice, the following are activities that I believe researchers should prioritize:

  • Setting up an intelligence system
    This involves tracking keywords to monitor conversations that are taking place on social media. Deirdre notes: It’s important to turn the listening intelligence on for all areas active in social media and then determine how your Listen/ Evaluate/Response strategy will lead to closing the gap between what you share and what the public needs. Researchers need to do this on their own. Communications staff are usually balancing other organizational demands and generally are not as knowledgeable about the subject as the person who did the actual research.
  • Building a content approach
    If researchers can make it point to set up their own intelligence system, it can play an important role in connecting the dots to misinformation or opportunities to share a story. This then can feed opportunities to create or re-use existing content. Researchers are at a huge advantage compared to others because they already have a body of work which to draw upon. Also highlighted under the Community Organizer Practice is the importance of creating an editorial calendar. Every person who has interesting research to disseminate should create such a calendar. It doesn’t take long to jot out some content ideas and align those with topical events. Such a planned approach makes the work involved in disseminating research more manageable from a time perspective and also allows you to be proactive rather than reactive (or non-existent). So let’s say you have interesting research on how cancer patients can best deal with the side effects of chemotherapy. It would make sense to be deliberate about communicating elements of your research during Cancer Awareness Month and when there is a local marathon in your community to support cancer research.

If you work as a communicator and support researchers, then pay particular attention to the following two components of the Communicator Organizer Practice:

  • Serve as a gatekeeper
    Deirdre’s point for this area focuses mainly on social media management. As we think about an overall communication dissemination strategy for research, I would build on this to encompass being the custodian of the brand in all aspects of communications. This entails serving as a sounding board and editor for all content, whether it is disseminated via the brand or the individual’s channel.
  • Educating with Training and Toolkits
    I truly believe that one of the most important attributes of a communicator in our digital age is to be an effective teacher. Most communicators probably don’t have formal training in educational theory, so it might be a bit outside the comfort zone for some. But just as we are asking researchers to perhaps move into unfamiliar territory by marketing their work, so too communicators might have to embrace this unknown. The more effective communicators are at equipping subject matter experts to be their own ambassadors, the better it is for all involved. So deliver hands-on, experiential training of communications strategies and tactics and prepare training materials that researchers can draw upon over time. It can go a long way to generating the desired impact.

Certainly there are many other aspects to the PR 2.0 mindset and likewise there are lots of variables at play in the fight for truth to prevail in our fragmented media landscape. But if researchers and the communicators who support them can step up in these four above areas, I think Team Fiction should be in fear of a comeback from a rejuvenated Team Fact.

This article first appeared on the PR Expanded blog. Learn more about my Research Translation Writing Course.