take academic research to the people

May 11, 2012 by

the image of research needs a make-over

Let's face it - academic research isn't faring well in the public eye these days.  It's largely invisible to the average person, and when it does break through the static, here's the kind of thing we hear:

'research always puts me to sleep...'

It all makes academic research look like a costly and wasteful exercise that a recession-wracked world can no longer afford.

And okay - it's worth admitting there's some pretty mediocre stuff that gets published every year just to keep academics in employment.

Yet anyone inside academia knows that's far from the whole picture.  There is genuinely exciting, relevant and life-changing research taking place.

But does anyone know?  Does anyone care?

communicating the value of research

There are plenty of politicians and university administrators with knives poised, ready to chop funding for anything that looks frivolous, uneconomic, or irrelevant.

Which means both academics and marketing/communications staff need to demonstrate - urgently - the value of research to the broader community.

Here are a few ideas about effective communications strategies that could spell the difference between scorched earth funding cuts and bringing research to a place of value and respect within the community.

  1. Know your target audience(s) and tailor your message accordingly.  It's easy to see this principle in action in recruitment and development materials - it should apply to research communications as well.
  2. Tell good stories.  Stories get a bad rap in academia.  They're considered by many to be simplistic and unsophisticated, whereas academic research should be rigorous, highly specialized and objective.  But academic jargon and dry Powerpoint slides are by far the most effective way to turn people off.  To get them excited about what you're doing, consider sharing some funny anecdotes, weaving plots of intrigue and discovery, or using other storytelling devices to make your work memorable.
  3. Show the human face of research.  Literally.  In person, on YouTube, with photos.  If you've got some crack researchers who are genuinely excited about their research and even a little charismatic, you've got a winner.  Enthusiasm is contagious, so get your best folks out in the world and then reward them for their efforts in the promotion process.
  4. Link research to current affairs.  This is the best way to address the relevancy issue.  If your research is somehow connected to an issue like government debt, climate change, or the latest online habits of young people, spell out the connections in detail in your press releases.  Don't expect journalists or readers to make the links for you.

academics and communications staff gotta love one another

Which may sound like a stretch.

In my experience as an academic, there was never more than skeptical tolerance between these groups.  That needs to change if news of the best academic research is to make its way into the public realm.

  • Have you ever met an academic who knows what a 'target audience' is?  I'm sure some exist, but I haven't met them.  Academics need marketers to help them tailor their message to a variety of potential fans
  • The best academics have a real passion for their research, but are rarely born storytellers.  Skilled copywriters can turn dense and complex material into lively and engaging stories without compromising the integrity of the research
  • Let's say an academic decides to take the leap into YouTube.  Do they know which aspect of their research is most likely to engage an audience?  Do they know how to write a headline that will get the click?  Do they know which technical aspects have to be right (e.g., audio quality), and where they can be more relaxed?  Communications staff, copywriters, and social media experts can all help academics to get the most out of their efforts on YouTube

That's just a start in exploring the benefits of a cooperative approach across campus.  But it still focuses mainly on the traditional paths of generating publicity, such as media coverage and promotional materials like newsletters and alumni magazines.

In the next post, I'll be exploring how 'new media' such as blogs, academic social networks, and revised curricula also have the potential help take research to the people.  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, how well does your school communicate the value of research?  And do academics and communications staff work well together to achieve good outcomes?


  1. Liam

    Really good post Julie!

    Our experience of effectively communicating research has been continually hampered by a lack of resource, the only thing we have been able to do is to start organising and auditing content so that it is easy to find and (hopefully) well linked. We definitely need an editor with the ability to identify and write for an audience, and to work with and engage our academics to enable to get more peer recognition and exposure cross-media.

    We're in the process of recruiting a new Web Content Editor for Research, and this is exactly what we are hoping they will be able to achieve in tandem with our academics.

    I think our greatest immediate challenge is converting the traditional press release into something like the audience-focussed storytelling you describe in the post. As we have no resource in that area, we are looking at the possibility of curating content written about our research - as some does get picked up by 'proper' journalistic publications.

    I'm really looking forward to your next post about 'new media', as a number of our research academics are showing great interest in Twitter and the like, but there are no clear guidelines or governance for its' use.

  2. julie

    Thanks Liam! And very interesting to hear about the specific struggles you're facing in this regard. It sounds like you know what you want to do - sorry to hear the resources aren't always forthcoming. Although perhaps as the financial pressures become more intense, institutions will begin to see the value of this kind of investment (and I suppose part of the challenge is to convince people it's an 'investment' rather than a 'cost').

    I'll be getting something out about the new media angle in the next few days - will be interested in your feedback.

  3. Eve

    Excellent article, thank you! We just posted an article on a similar topic on our Research @ the U of M blog, which is geared for faculty and staff at the University of Minnesota. It's titled "Telling your research story," and it includes tips from communications staff across the university. I added a link to your story in the comments section. I hope everyone reads it! http://researchumn.com/2012/05/10/telling-your-research-story-tips-from-u-communicators/

  4. julie

    Hi Eve,

    Thanks for your comments, and for the link! Glad you found the article helpful. Enjoyed reading your blog post too - interesting and useful to hear from a variety of people across campus, and it added a few important dimensions to what I was talking about.

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