University communications functions can from the outside seem monolithic and impenetrable. Offering a brief overview of different kinds of research comms, Andy Tattersall suggests how researchers can navigate and work effectively with different professional communications staff.
Academics and research groups unfamiliar with dissemination activities often come up against multiple challenges. Notably, academic departments are unlikely to have an in-house research communications expert. More likely they will have a marketing or engagement officer, whose focus is on student recruitment and retention, if teaching forms part of that department’s core activities.
The reason for this is that student recruitment activities are easier to measure in terms of success and income than research communications activities. The job specification of ‘marketing and communications’ is commonplace, it highlights a symbiotic relationship between the two. Yet due to the division of labour and focus, communications through the lens of research can be a very small c. However, this confusion is indicative of wider issues around where responsibilities and skills for communicating research reside in universities.
Research communication has a broad remit and includes a variety of different roles and skillsets that includes media and public engagement, impact and knowledge exchange. Knowing who these players are and what they do is valuable, so is knowing where they slot in as part of your research communications activities. To further complicate things professionals in these areas may also have variations of job titles. They also might not be aware of each other individually across the campus. This can be frustrating, as ultimately academia, teaching, research and knowledge exchange all benefit from each other’s existence.
The roles in this graphic highlight the different areas of research dissemination across an interconnected ecosystem. If you are taking your first steps into communicating research, then it is helpful to understand how they fit into that process and the different roles and advantages they might provide at different stages of the research lifecycle.
Based in academic libraries they are often the first to discover new research publications. They are at the forefront of making research outputs accessible to an international audience. They understand processes for making research discoverable and readable through Open Access and data, improving researcher visibility with ORCiDs, alternative methods for tracking research through altmetrics; and the formal process for evaluating research outputs as the Research Excellence Framework (REF).
Communications and Marketing
Embedded throughout academic organisations are communications and marketing professionals. Invariably a focus of these roles is that of student recruitment, but also the dissemination of research, usually through newsletters and social media. They may not be closely linked to their colleagues in the library, but they can learn from them, especially with regards to the use of bibliometric tools, such as digital object identifiers, and links to Open Access research, which can build up a picture of how research is used online.
Public engagement, like many aspects of research communication, can be seen as an activity that happens after the research has been conducted. However, done well it can exist at the very start of the research life cycle, particularly in engaged and participatory research projects. Accessing and working with public and community groups is complex and requires a deep understanding of community and societal groups.
Opportunities also exist that are not exclusively tied to a specific research project such as, The Festival of Social Science, Pint of Science or Soapbox Science. Public engagement activities often take place at a grassroots level, but for rigorous research grounded in local communities, there is much benefit to be had from professional support. Public engagement teams are also keen to discover fresh talent, who have the potential to be a public face for their institution. Some of these activities could be a pathway to impact in the long term which takes us to another piece of this rich jigsaw.
Impact is often discussed within the ringed fence of the REF and impact case studies, but it is a very broad term. Those working in impact support roles may have the REF as an integral element of their role as they work with research leads and academics to carefully identify societally impactful research. However, they will be attuned to the idea that impact goes beyond the REF and is perennial; it is something that any research can generate. A piece of research might take decades to be cited in a policy document. Impact officers, by dint of writing case studies, will also more than likely be acutely aware of different communication and engagement activities happening across the institution.
Media specialists do exactly this – working with the media. They are hugely important in working with local and national media to help disseminate mostly new research, as well as responding to media enquiries for expert comment. They often work ahead of publication, placing new findings with appropriate media partners, as such they might benefit from better links to institutional preprint repositories. In addition, a better understanding of altmetrics, DOIs, preprints and open data can help improve, not only the visibility of research, but that of those who created it.
A note of caution is needed though. As any communications professional will tell you, regardless of what part of the organisation they reside in, it is easy to suffer from information overload. Whilst it is beneficial that such roles have a better understanding of their allies across the professional and academic spectrum, academics also have a role to play in building greater cohesion. By being proactive across social media, making outputs open and discoverable aids the whole research communications lifecycle. Communications professionals’ time is valuable, but by making them aware of your existence and work sooner than later you have a greater chance of coverage.
If possible, meet them in person and buy them a coffee. The by-product of talking about your research in such an informal setting with someone who can help project your work can help frame future dissemination activities. A quick 30 minute chat could be the start of a mutually beneficial working relationship. Most professionals working in these areas who are worth their salt are usually on the lookout for proactive academics they can work with to help champion their own activities. Ultimately it is a win-win for all parties as research communications, in whatever form, are interconnected and there is much strength in numbers.
If you enjoyed this post, you can read all of Andy Tattersall’s recent posts here.
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